Everything came together at the perfect time for the U.S. National Junior Team during the 2013 International Ice Hockey Federation World Junior Championship.
“We weren’t an underdog, but we weren’t favorites,” said current New York Rangers forward J.T. Miller. “On paper, we didn’t have the best team, but we really put it all together at a good time.”
Team USA clinched its third gold medal in program history following a 3-1 victory in 2013 against Sweden in Ufa, Russia. The group did it in dramatic fashion, too.
Seth Jones, current Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman, was an alternate captain on that team. He famously proclaimed the Americans as the best team in the tournament, and though Canada was heavily favored, Jones was right.
The U.S. opened the tournament with a 1-2 record, in danger of missing the medal round, but rallied to win the next four games. That included a 5-1 rout of Canada in the semifinals followed by the historic championship win against Sweden. The Americans outscored the opposition 24-5 during the four-game run to the gold medal.
“It was kind of a different tournament,” Jones said. “It was in Russia and it was a very unfamiliar [setting] for a lot of us. It really forced us to get together as a group and be a unit.”
Miller spoke of the tight-knit bond between the players.
“It was just playing with your buddies,” Miller said. “We were kind of in the middle of nowhere Russia, but we pulled it together. We were so close and we had a great team.”
Miller and Jones both believe it served as a boost for the USA Hockey program. The 2013 tournament championship was special to Miller, who was on the team a year earlier during a disappointing seventh-place finish.
“We kind of had a bad year before that too [in 2012] and people thought we would be much better than we were,” Miller said. “[In 2013], it was a really cool bounce-back year and it was great for the program.”
The eyes of the hockey world were on the tournament, too, thanks to the lockout that wiped out half of the 2012-13 NHL season. Miller called the semifinal game against Canada “the most nerve-wracking” game he played to that point in his career.
“You’re playing against essentially NHL competition at the time,” Miller said. “To be able to break through against them was pretty special.”
Jones also reflected on the high-end talent and extra attention the tournament received.
“It was special for us to go there, especially in a lockout year,” Jones said. “They had all the NHL players playing on every team, and it was one of the best tournaments, I think skill-wise.
“I had been part of USA Hockey for four or five years before that, so being able to grow the game for USA Hockey and youth hockey was huge.”
There are 12 players from that American team currently playing in the NHL. Miller stood out on a line during the tournament with Jimmy Vesey, his current teammate in New York, in addition to Calgary Flames forward Johnny Gaudreau.
“Unfortunately, [Vesey] was kind of an odd guy out to start the tournament, but he worked his way into a role and played with Johnny and I,” Miller said. “He found himself as a goal scorer and was a big part of our success.”
The Miller, Vesey and Gaudreau line combined for nine goals and 22 points during the final four games of the tournament. Gaudreau led the tournament with seven goals, tying for the second-best ever by a U.S. player. He shared the team lead with Miller and current Winnipeg Jets defenseman Jacob Trouba, as all tallied nine points.
“I was playing with two great players,” Miller said. “I just gave the puck to them and they pretty much did the work.”
Current Montreal Canadiens forward Alex Galchenyuk had an eight-point tournament. He helped the U.S. to a gold medal in the country where his father Alexander, who played professionally in Europe, was born.
Current Anaheim Ducks goaltender John Gibson and Florida Panthers forward Vincent Trocheck also shared a championship bond with Miller, as the three were born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
“That was crazy and an unbelievable experience,” said Trocheck, who finished with three goals and six points. “It was my first international tournament on a big stage and the team we had was great. To be able to win a gold medal was something you can’t even explain.”
Gibson was the second U.S. player to earn MVP honors for the tournament and the sixth goaltender. He set U.S. records for save percentage (.955) and posted a 1.36 goals-against average, the third-best in program history.
“I was fortunate enough to have success and the team had success,” Gibson said. “It was just a good team. I think that’s why we were able to win.”
Jones also enjoyed a big tournament, finishing fifth among Americans with a goal and six assists in addition to a plus-eight rating, good for second on the team.
Jones was the youngest player on the team at 18, but he was a seasoned veteran in international play. Jones helped the U.S. to two IIHF Under-18 Men’s World Championships, and a second-place finish in the 2011 World U17 Hockey Challenge prior to winning the 2013 World Junior Championship. He credits the USA Hockey program for his success, including his experience with the USA Hockey National Team Development Program.
“I was a 15, 16, 17-year-old going there, trying to have my career take off and develop,” Jones said. “It was my first time moving away from home, living with someone you’re not familiar with and put into different situations. It forces you to grow up quickly and take responsibility quicker for yourself.”
Jones may have held a leadership role as an alternate captain, but he cited leaders throughout the lineup that led the Americans to gold.
“Going into that tournament, I had a lot of guys that I already knew previously, so I was pretty comfortable to start and it helped us throughout,” Jones said. “Winning the tournament, we had a lot of good chemistry.”
That chemistry remains with the 2013 team. It’s a connection that will stay with the players forever.
“Even talking to those same guys now [about the experience],” Jones said. “I had dinner with (J.T.) Miller last week when New York was here. I think the little things like that keep the bond together for life.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.