The 23 players represent 11 different states, with various development paths including the USHL, OHL, high school hockey and elite Under-18 programs. The team features nine players who were members of the U.S. Under-17 Men’s Select Team that competed in the 2022 Five Nations Tournament in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and 17 of the players are currently committed to play college hockey.
“The experience part for me is such a great blended background,” Strand said. “From high school to midget to preps to junior hockey. I’m really looking forward to guys turning the page together and becoming one throughout the whole process.”
Minnesota State recently hired Strand to be its head coach, but he has ample experience coaching players at the U18 level, including leading the Sioux City Musketeers to the Clark Cup in 2022.
He’ll lean on that experience in the tournament and said in a short tournament like this that the key will be the willingness to adapt quickly.
“We had a meeting about that already after we formed the team. We’ll have to find some versatility, and that versatility will be a positive thing for these guys,” Strand said. “It’s a balance of the discipline for us to find what works in a team structure, but also being able to execute on skill plays.”
Strand said he really likes the pace of the team. The Americans should be able to attack and defend with speed at the tournament, which is one of the top under-18 showcases — and one of the most watched by NHL teams — each year. Many NHL teams look at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup as the official opening of the scouting year for the following summer’s NHL draft.
For the players going to Czechia and Slovakia, it’s an honor and an opportunity, which started with a tryout camp at USA Hockey Arena in Plymouth, Michigan, following the USA Hockey-BioSteel Boys 17 National Festival in Amherst, New York.
“I was excited. I’ve never played for Team USA before and I’d never made one of these camps,” defenseman and Holden, Massachusetts, native William Felicio said. “I was really excited and pumped just to get here, and then in the camp everyone was just pushing everyone, it was great.”
Representing Team USA is an honor for any player, but it will hold even more meaning to forward Trevor Connelly.
“It means a lot to me, my grandpa was in the army and for my whole family, being able to represent the USA, it means a ton for me to be here and to be on this team,” Connelly, a native of Tustin, California, said. “It was a special feeling for sure just to get invited [to camp] that whole day. I was just the happiest kid ever.”
On an individual level, the players are well aware of the eyes that will be on them at the tournament. For many, this will be one of the best and first chances to make an impression on NHL scouts.
Goalie Thatcher Bernstein — who played high school hockey near his hometown of Brookline, Massachusetts, this past season and will move to the USHL in the fall — said this tournament is a great opportunity to springboard the next step of his career. Connelly and Felicio, who both played in the USHL last season, said it would be an ideal launching pad for the USHL season, and in the long run, a great experience for their college careers at Providence College and the University of Denver, respectively.
“The speed is one of the things I’ll take away most from it,” Bernstein said. “To get going in a competitive tournament, to see the competition, to push yourself, and to do it while playing for a Team USA, it couldn’t be a better way to start the season.”
On a team level, the Americans are looking for their third tournament victory since its inception in 1991; the U.S. won first place in 2003. The Americans have 13 top-three finishes, including finishing second nine times and third three times.
The Americans are in Group A for the tournament with Czechia, Germany, and Sweden. Canada, Finland, Slovakia, and Switzerland will make up Group B.
Strand and his team arrived in Slovakia earlier this week and have a pre-tournament game against Slovakia on Saturday, before opening group play on July 31 against Czechia.
Strand said those earlier games, including the pre-tournament contest, will be vital for the team to grow together and find various roles, while also embracing that versatility he mentioned earlier.
“Everyone is excited to get going and embrace the challenges,” Strand said. “This team has a lot of great parts already, we’ve seen that, now I’m just excited to see how they put it all together as a group.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.