|Zach Parise and Ryan Kesler celebrate after Kesler scored an empty-net goal in the third period during a preliminary game between Canada and Team USA in Vancouver.
When Zach Parise, Ryan Suter and Ryan Kesler helped lead the United States to its first IIHF World Junior Championship title in 2004, the future looked bright for American hockey.
And that bright future was realized when those three players helped lead Team USA to a silver medal at the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games.
On Saturday, a new generation of U.S. players such as Seth Jones, Alex Galchenyuk and Jacob Trouba will aim to begin their own journey toward a possible Olympic medal when they meet Sweden (8 a.m. ET, NHL Network) for this year’s World Junior Championship gold medal — a title would be Team USA’s third overall and second in four years.
With a roster featuring the best American players under the age of 20, the United States has an opportunity to take a giant leap forward after dispatching archrival Canada in a stunning 5-1 semifinal victory Thursday. Sweden is the defending gold medalist from the World Junior Championship last year and has eyes on keeping its title.
The World Junior Championship, which is being held this year in Ufa, Russia, has become one of the top amateur events in the hockey world. It has also become one of the premier training grounds for future Olympians.
In addition to Parise, Suter and Kesler, the 2010 U.S. Olympic Team also featured Patrick Kane, Jack Johnson and Erik Johnson, who helped the United States claim bronze at the WJC in 2007.
The U.S. National Junior Team this year just may feature a few future Olympians as well.
Jones, an 18-year-old defenseman originally from Plano, Texas, could be one of them. Seth Jones, the son of former NBA player Popeye Jones, is 6-foot-4 with good mobility and a high hockey IQ. Many have predicted he will be the No. 1 overall pick at the 2013 NHL Entry Draft in June. While it might be a little too optimistic to expect him on the 2014 team in Sochi, Russia, anything is possible when it comes to the big Texan. Jones has seven points at the World Juniors, which ranks second among all defensemen.
Galchenyuk, the third overall selection by the Montreal Canadiens in the 2012 NHL Draft, is another one of the United States’ brightest stars. Born in Milwaukee, Galchenyuk moved with his family around the world, with stops in Italy and Russia along the way. He has Russian citizenship but decided to play for the country of his birth. His father, also named Alex, played for the Soviet Union in several major international tournaments and later represented his native Belarus in the Nagano 1998 Olympic Winter Games.
The younger Alex is turning heads in the Ontario Hockey League this year with 61 points in just 33 games this season. He is leading Team USA with six assists in the World Junior Championship.
Defenseman Trouba is another one to watch. Selected ninth overall by the Winnipeg Jets in the 2012 NHL Draft, he is the tournament’s leading defenseman with eight points including four goals, also a tournament high for blueliners. He currently plays for the University of Michigan and is having a great start to his collegiate career.
Now the focus for each is on winning the World Junior Championship and taking that step forward for USA Hockey.
Led by head coach Phil Housley, the 2002 Olympic silver medalist and former NHL defenseman, Team USA went through a little adversity in the tournament. The squad lost a pair of preliminary-round games to Canada and Russia by identical 2-1 score lines. Those losses put the U.S. in a must-win situation in its final prelim game against Slovakia.
Led by Boston College sophomore Johnny Gaudreau’s hat trick, the U.S. trounced the Slovakians, 9-3, overcoming its offensive woes from the previous two games to earn a place in the tournament quarterfinals. Then Team USA shut out a strong team from the Czech Republic, 7-0, to earn the semifinal date with Canada.
With its best team effort of the tournament, including some dazzling work by goaltender John Gibson, the Americans overwhelmed the heavily favored Canadians, dominating from start to finish.
Now the United States will meet the defending gold medalist in what should be a classic World Junior Championship final. This event, which had long been dominated by Canada, has now become the world’s tournament, with different gold medalists in each of the last four tournaments (Canada, United States, Russia and Sweden).
The team from Sweden features many familiar faces to the American players. Many of them faced the United States in the IIHF World Under-18 Championship gold-medal games over the past two years, both of which were won by the United States. The United States faced Sweden in an exhibition on Dec. 20, a game that the Americans won, 3-2, in overtime.
Jones actually captained the United States to the Under-18 world title that included a 7-0 shutout of Sweden in the final.
“They’re a great team and we expect the most from them,” Jones said. “This will be my third gold-medal game against Sweden.”
And for the Americans, hopefully, the game will end with another gold medal.
Story courtesy Red Line Editorial, Inc. Chris Peters is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. Material from USA Hockey was used to compile this report. This story was not subject to the approval of any National Governing Bodies.