International hockey is a time for rivals and friends to become teammates on the ice and behind the bench.
Standing behind the 2015 U.S. National Junior Team are four friends: head coach Mark Osiecki and assistant coaches Mike Ayers, Don Granato and Kevin Patrick. Together, they have the opportunity to represent their country and go for gold at the 2015 IIHF World Junior Championship, held later this month in Montreal and Toronto.
“We’ve talked about this, being together on the same staff, for such a long time. It’s hard to believe it,” said Granato.
Osiecki and Granato first crossed paths at age 13, playing for Burnsville High School and winning a Minnesota State High School League championship. Both went on to play junior hockey for the United States Hockey League’s Madison Capitols. The tandem topped their amateur-playing career by helping win a national title for the University of Wisconsin in 1990.
Their paths crossed again after Granato wrapped up a Clark Cup championship season in 1996 as head coach and general manager of the USHL’s Green Bay Gamblers. With Granato set to move on to the professional ranks in the ECHL, he turned to his friend Osiecki to take the reins in Green Bay.
“When I left, the owner [of Green Bay] asked that I find my replacement. I told him that would take one phone call,” said Granato.
Having just won an NCAA title as an assistant coach under Dean Blais at the University of North Dakota, Osiecki accepted the Green Bay position and brought Patrick as the assistant general manager and assistant head coach. After forging a friendship at hockey camps during the early 90s, Green Bay was their first opportunity to coach together.
Blais and Osiecki reunited on a much larger stage, the 2010 World Junior Championship, where the U.S. beat host country, Canada, in overtime for its second gold medal in World Junior competition and breaking Canada’s bid for six consecutive titles.
Osiecki was also an assistant coach for the 2011 and 2013 U.S. squads that captured bronze and gold, respectively.
Osiecki’s track record made team general manager Jim Johannson’s decision for the 2015 head coach very simple.
“The selection is based on his coaching history and just being around him at this tournament three times,” said Johannson. “He also knows the tournament in Canada, which makes a difference. There’s more coverage, there’s more media and you have to be prepared for those off-ice components, and Mark’s comfortable with all those, as well as the general components of the competition.”
Given their résumés and relationships with Osiecki, Granato, entering his fourth season as a head coach for USA Hockey's National Team Development Program, and Patrick, entering his third as an assistant for the University of Vermont, were standouts for assistant positions.
“In Don, you have a guy that’s very knowledgeable in U.S., Canadian and European player pools from all the competitions that he’s coached in the past three years,” said Johannson. “And in Kevin Patrick, you have a guy that, especially with Mark Osiecki, understands what Mark’s looking for as far as getting the team prepared and pre-scouting other teams.”
For the final assistant position, Osiecki and Johannson agreed on Mike Ayers, assistant coach at Boston College.
“Mike Ayers has his familiarity with some of the goaltenders, and it’s going to be very helpful,” said Osiecki.
The coaching connections extend even to Ayers who, before going to Boston, coached with Granato at the National Team Development Program for two seasons and oversaw USA Hockey’s Warren Strelow National Goaltending Camp. He was also the goaltending coach for the 2012 and 2013 U.S. Men’s National Under-18 Teams that won gold and silver, respectively, at the IIHF Men’s Under-18 World Championship.
With the final member of the 2015 junior coaching staff in place, it’s time for Osiecki and company to focus on the tasks at hand: winning another World Junior title and developing championship-caliber players.
“Your team is often a reflection of your leader. The players sense that, and I know we do as a staff,” said Granato. “I’ve looked forward to this for a long time, working together with [Osiecki].”
One of the obstacles of developing future champions is creating chemistry and camaraderie among players that may have not ever played together. With four pool play games to qualify for the playoff round, it’s a hurdle that needs to be quickly overcome. Team USA hopes the cohesive unit of bench bosses makes that hurdle a little shorter.
“You have guys that have a history together, that care about each other and that have followed each others’ careers,” said Granato. “That’s what you want in a team and teammates, and we have that at a high level in the coaching staff.”
Watch the U.S. National Junior Team compete for gold at the 2015 International Ice Hockey Federation World Junior Championship, Dec. 26, 2014 - Jan. 5, 2015. Check worldjuniors.usahockey.com for complete World Junior and Team USA coverage.
|Date||Opponent||Location||Time (ET)/Broadcast Info|
|Fri., Dec. 26||Finland||Bell Centre, Montreal||W, 2-1 SO|
|Sun., Dec. 28||Germany||Bell Centre, Montreal||W, 6-0|
|Mon., Dec. 29||Slovakia||Bell Centre, Montreal||W, 3-0|
|Wed., Dec. 31||Canada||Bell Centre, Montreal||L, 3-5|
|Fri., Jan. 2||Russia
|Bell Centre, Montreal||L, 2-3|