Joy To The Worlds
Seth Jones, in the conversation for the next NHL draft's No. 1 pick, may have the Olympics in his future, too.
|U.S. National Junior Team General Manager Jim Johannson breaks down Team USA’s four first-round opponents:
Dec. 27 vs. Germany (9 a.m. EST): Compete hard, always tenacious. Their skill level has risen over the past five years. They make you compete and play.
Dec. 28 vs. Russia (9 a.m. EST): I think it will be almost like playing Canada in Canada, but with a European flavor. The funny part is the Russians, as do the Canadians, appreciate good hockey. Sure, they’re going to be cheering for the home team, but they’re going to appreciate good hockey. I hope and expect that to be a really entertaining game but probably not as physical as the Canada game.
Dec. 30 vs. Canada (4:30 a.m. EST): Obviously loaded on paper. I do think it’s going to be a good game, real high compete level with a high skill level, too. It should be one of the most exciting games of the tournament.
Dec. 31 vs. Slovakia (5 a.m. EST): At that point in the tournament, you’re hoping you’re starting to hit on all cylinders and that guys define their roles. For us, we feel like we want to be a deeper team, and, hopefully, at that point, the depth on your team shines.
Given his precociousness, Phil Housley was, in a way, too good too young for the Olympic Games. As a teen-aged star during the early 1980s in Minnesota, the silky smooth-skating defenseman made the nearly impossible leap from high school hockey to the National Hockey League. With that leap, Housley took his amateur status with him.
The Buffalo Sabres had drafted Housley in the summer of 1982 – No. 6 overall – and he made an immediate impact in the NHL. As a rookie, the 5-foot-10, 170-pounder played in 77 games, scoring 19 goals and recording 66 points during the 1982-83 season. Housley's Olympic dreams were over before they started.
Or so it seemed.
A rule change announced in 1995 cleared the way for the world's best hockey players to participate on the Olympic stage beginning in 1998.
By that point, Housley was an established veteran, churning out nearly point-per-game seasons with the Sabres, Jets, Blues, Flames and Devils through 1995-96. In 1996-97, however, he slipped to 40 points in 77 games with the Capitals and was not picked for the Nagano 1998 Olympic Winter Games.
"There were two paths you could have gone," Housley said recently. "You could have been feeling sorry for yourself, or you could use that as motivation and inspiration. So, the next opportunity in 2002 came, and I was well-prepared."
At the Salt Lake City 2002 Olympic Winter Games, Housley earned a silver medal with Herb Brooks behind the bench.
It remains, to this day, one of his great memories in a career full of them. Beyond playing for Brooks, Housley formed a team representing a belle époque of hockey in the United States, with players such as Tony Amonte, Chris Chelios, Bill Guerin, John LeClair, Brian Leetch, Mike Modano, Mike Richter, Jeremy Roenick, Keith Tkachuk and Doug Weight.
|Housley at the 2002 Games|
"It was great playing for Herb Brooks," recalled Housley, who went on to play 1,495 NHL games before retiring in 2003 with 1,232 points (the most by a U.S.-born defenseman). "I enjoy that memory even though we didn't win the gold medal. There was a group of players that really came up together … and we had a chance to win a gold medal. That's the opportunity that you're looking for.
"As I look back,  is the best USA Hockey memory that I have."
Housley, who first wore the Team USA jersey as a player at the 1982 IIHF World Junior Championship and represented his country on seven U.S. Men's National Teams, now has the chance to author more USA Hockey memories from another perspective.
For the next few weeks -- fingers crossed -- he's taking his most prominent role as a head coach when the 2013 IIHF World Junior Championship opens in Ufa, Russia on Dec. 26. Team USA's first-round games are slated for Dec. 27 vs. Germany (9 a.m. EST), Dec. 28 vs. Russia (9 a.m. EST), Dec. 30 vs. Canada (4:30 a.m. EST) and Dec. 31 vs. Slovakia (5 a.m. EST).
As of Wednesday morning, the team had yet to settle on its final 23-player roster, which is expected to include three goaltenders, 13 forwards and seven defensemen (on Wednesday there were still eight defensemen listed on the roster). Its captain is Jake McCabe, who hails from Eau Claire, Wis., and plays for the University of Wisconsin.
"I really like this group," said Housley, who served as an assistant on two previous U.S. National Junior Teams (2007, 2011) and first met up with this edition's hopefuls during a summer training camp in Lake Placid, N.Y., home to the Miracle on Ice. "I was really excited in Lake Placid. I thought everybody came prepared. That was my first, initial request -- that they were ready to go. And, now, a lot of these guys are reaping the benefits. They're developing really well, and I'm just excited. The passion for the game is there, they're responding, and that's great to see."
The IIHF World Junior Championship, held this time every year, is an under-20 tournament stocked by the top teen-aged players in the world. As such, it offers fans the first serious exposure to Team USA's up-and-coming players.
Some wear the weighty label of "potential Olympian."
And, this year, that list of possible, maybe, would-be, future Olympians begins with Seth Jones and Jacob Trouba. Both are defensemen, and both are big, mobile puck-movers.
Jones, who finds himself in the conversation for the No. 1 overall pick in his NHL draft class, is a 6-foot-4, 205-pounder from Plano, Texas. A good bit of his size likely comes from his father, 6-foot-8 former NBA player Popeye Jones.
After playing two seasons at USA Hockey's elite National Team Development Program, Jones, who was born Oct. 3, 1994, is playing this season for the Portland Winterhawks of the Western Hockey League. To date, he has eight goals and 20 assists in 31 games for the Winterhawks.
| Trouba at Team USA's training camp this past summer
Trouba was also born in 1994, on Feb. 26, and was Winnipeg's first-round pick – No. 9 overall – in the most recent NHL draft. The 6-2, 198-pound Michigan native, like Jones, spent two seasons at the NTDP. Trouba chose the NCAA route, and he's a freshman at the University of Michigan, where he has five goals and six assists in 16 games.
J.T. Miller, who plays for the AHL's Connecticut Whale as a Rangers draft pick (No. 15 overall in 2011), may be next in the Olympic conversation -- along with Alex Galchenyuk, the highest draft pick on this edition of Team USA (No. 3 overall to Montreal in 2012), and a handful of others.
Trouba, Miller and goaltender John Gibson are all returning members of the 2012 U.S. National Junior Team, which finished a disappointing seventh at the 2012 IIHF World Junior Championship.
A measure of redemption is on the minds even of WJC rookies. Jones, in fact, recently told reporters the United States is as equipped as any to win gold in 2013. Team USA has won gold in the event only twice, for the first time in 2004 and again in 2010.
The '04 team, in addition to making history, also paved the way for Olympic success. Three members of the gold medal team -- Zach Parise, Ryan Kesler and Ryan Suter -- were part of Team USA's silver-medal squad at the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games.
And the trio wasn't alone among WJC veterans in Vancouver. In all, the 2010 U.S. Olympic Men's Hockey Team included 16 players with WJC experience: defensemen Tim Gleason (2001), Erik Johnson (2006, 2007), Jack Johnson (2006, 2007), Brooks Orpik (2000), Brian Rafalski (1993, 1992), Suter (2003, 2004, 2005) and forwards Ryan Whitney (2002, 2003), Dustin Brown (2002, 2003), Ryan Callahan (2005), Chris Drury (1996), Patrick Kane (2007), Kesler (2003, 2004), Phil Kessel (2005, 2006), Jamie Langenbrunner (1994, 1995), Parise (2003, 2004) and Bobby Ryan (2006).
In Ufa, Team USA may not have a great deal of direct WJC experience, though optimism remains high.
"I think the expectation for our team is to get back in the gold medal game," said Housley. "That's our goal. And we feel very confident we've chosen the right players to do that."
In addition to a big and talented defense, goaltending is expected to be strong.
"John Gibson is probably one of the best goaltenders going into the tournament, not to put any pressure on him," Housley said of the 6-foot-3 Pittsburgh native.
Now that the team has arrived in Ufa, after a three-day camp Dec. 16-18 in New York and another five days in Helsinki, Finland, where Team USA went 1-1 in exhibition games against Sweden and Finland, the quest for a third gold medal begins.
The gold-medal game is set for Jan. 5.
"In a perfect world, we'd like to have some scoring and some energy and some grit," said Housley of a team that represents 13 states, from Massachusetts to California and from Minnesota to Florida. "Certainly the players we have here fit that description."
No matter the result, the future is on display.