LAKE PLACID, N.Y. — The 2016 International Ice Hockey Federation World Junior Championship in Helsinki, Finland, is more than four months away, but the process for identifying the U.S. National Junior Team that will compete at the event has already started.
Thirty-nine U.S. players under the age of 20 were invited to attend the 2015 USA Hockey National Junior Evaluation Camp from July 31-Aug. 8 in Lake Placid, New York. The camp features international competition between the U.S., Finland and Sweden, with all games taking place in the 1980 Herb Brooks Arena at the Olympic Center.
“The tournament is a seven games in 11 nights grind,” said Jim Johannson (Colorado Springs, Colo.), USA Hockey’s assistant executive director of hockey operations and general manager of the 2016 U.S. National Junior Team. “It’s a lot of hockey at this time of year for guys. You can train all you want, but there’s nothing like really playing, and for virtually all of these guys, it’s the first intense hockey of the season other than going to their respective NHL camps.”
With multiple two-a-day skates and roster cuts midway through the week that saw the player pool reduce to 31, including two players who left for precautionary reasons, evaluation camp is physically and mentally demanding for the players. However, the camp delves much deeper than the play on the ice.
Behind the scenes, both camp and team staff members work tirelessly toward finding the best players to represent the United States in the upcoming World Junior Championship.
The players, as instructed by Ron Wilson (Riverside, R.I.), head coach of the 2016 U.S. National Junior Team, arrive at the rink one hour prior to practices or games. By that time, though, some staff members have already put in hours of work.
Equipment managers Scott Aldrich (Colorado Springs, Colo.) and David Gilbert (South Bend, Ind.) arrive at the arena before the team to prepare the locker rooms and equipment. Aldrich said they sharpen skates before and after time on the ice, in addition to doing laundry and making sure the locker room stalls are set up.
During games and practices, the equipment managers prepare themselves for on-the-fly repairs and adjustments, and are on alert for unexpected equipment issues that might arise.
“A lot of our job is preventative maintenance,” said Aldrich. “From an equipment maintenance standpoint, a majority of our work, such as sharpening and repairs, is done while players are not here. Typically, once the players get here, we want to have everything ready and then we deal with things as they come up.”
Before players take the ice, athletic trainers Brian Brewster (Houghton, Mich.) and Stan Wong (Boca Raton, Fla.) provide any necessary treatment, which can include massaging and icing, before Wong helps lead pregame warmups. After stretches, some players get taped before putting on their gear and heading out for a practice or game.
Before the U.S. squad was trimmed from two teams to one Tuesday, Wilson observed practice from the stands alongside Johannson and other hockey operations and player personnel staff members. During that time, Chris Chelios (Chicago, Ill.) and Danton Cole (Pontiac, Mich.), assistant coaches for the 2016 U.S. National Junior Team, ran practices along with guest camp coaches Kelly Miller (East Lansing, Mich.) and Doug Weight (Warren, Mich.). Kevin Reiter (Pittsburgh, Pa.), also an assistant coach for the U.S. National Junior Team, worked with the goalies throughout the practices.
While the players are either practicing or competing in a game, Johannson and other members of the staff evaluate the players’ on-ice performances. At this stage in the process of selecting the 2016 U.S. National Junior Team, Johannson said the focuses of their evaluations are looking for basic traits such as compete level and skating ability. As the camp progresses, their attention is turning to identifying roles specific players could fill.
“We want to get the players a chance to play in almost all the opportunities and rotate linemates quite a bit to just see if guys stand out doing that,” Johannson said. “You’ll start to see a little more of certain types of players playing together and guys getting in more of a defined role in the shaping of the team.”
Following skating sessions, Brewster and Wong conduct any necessary physical evaluations at the arena, and sometimes do follow-ups later in the day using the facilities at the Lake Placid Olympic Training Center where the players are staying.
To work on team dynamics and conduct off-ice assessments, Johannson brought in trainer Kirk Culik (Ann Arbor, Mich.), who has been involved with USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program since its inception in 1996.
His focus is bringing the players together through a consistent regimen consisting of eating together, proper team warmups and presentation off the ice — all things Culik refers to as holding players accountable.
His methods take a military-like approach. Culik implemented a dress code, including a short haircut and shaved face, and frequently utilizes paramilitary exercises during team workouts. He said a player being able to follow those guidelines off the ice directly correlates to their ability to be coached.
“I look at moral and character issues: how the players interact in the locker room, how they interact with each other, who's a leader,” Culik said. “They are men now, so the expectations are higher. I want to see who can step up to that next level, who can carry themselves when they're representing their country.”
The Lake Placid Olympic Training Center, which caters mostly to Olympic winter sports, offers the players an opportunity for off-ice team bonding through basketball, ping pool, pool and other recreational activities. With Finland and Sweden also being housed in the Olympic Training Center, there is also the opportunity for players to interact with foreign players. On off-days, the staff allows players time off-complex to visit historic downtown Lake Placid.
Participating in evaluation camp is the first step in the process to making the 2016 U.S. National Junior Team. In mid-December, USA Hockey will conduct a training camp in Boston that will lead to the selection of the final team. The roster might include players who did not attend this week’s camp.
“We’re still about four months from the World Junior Championship, so that’s a lot of time and a lot of things can change,” said Wilson. “We want these guys to leave here with an understanding of how we’re going to proceed as a group, and I just hope the kids will continue to grow and become better hockey players.”
|Sat., Aug. 1||USA White vs. USA Blue||Blue, 4-3|
|Sun., Aug. 2||USA White vs. Finland||W, 5-2|
|USA Blue vs. Sweden||L, 2-5|
|Mon., Aug. 3||USA Blue vs. Finland||L, 3-10|
|USA White vs. Sweden||W, 10-3|
|Wed., Aug. 5||USA vs. Finland||W, 10-3|
|Thurs., Aug. 6||USA vs. Sweden||L, 2-5|
|Sat., Aug. 8||USA vs. Finland||1 p.m.|