LILLEHAMMER, Norway -- As Tyler Weiss sat in the penalty box for slashing, leaving Team USA shorthanded with just over a minute left and a narrow lead over Canada at 3-2, all he could think about was how he lost his team the gold medal at the 2016 Winter Youth Olympic Games.
He was determined to right his wrong.
The moment Weiss returned to the ice, he took quick advantage of an empty net and sunk one in from center ice. Putting the icing on the cake with 19 seconds remaining, Jake Wise landed another empty-net goal and solidified the gold medal for the U.S. Youth Olympic Men’s Ice Hockey Team with a 5-2 win over Canada.
“It’s amazing,” Weiss said of the final-minute action. “I thought I cost us there, so it’s an amazing feeling. I can’t believe it.”
It was the perfect ending to an impressive run for the the U.S. team, which won five of its six games this week in Lillehammer, outscoring opponents 26-9. Team USA’s sole loss of the tournament was a preliminary-round match against Canada, furthering the desire for revenge in Sunday’s final.
“Canada’s a great team and after losing to them in the first game we were excited to play them,” Wise said.
The back-and-forth between the U.S. and Canada has produced one of the biggest rivalries in international ice hockey, at any age level for both men and women, with the two teams often battling for the top prize and trading wins.
Though they were familiar with it, experiencing the rivalry firsthand was new to the U.S. players competing in Lillehammer, who are all 15, except Weiss, who turned 16 last month.
“This is my first U.S.-Canada game; it’s all of ours,” Wise said. “Nobody really knows how big the rivalry is until you play in it, but it’s amazing. When you lose to Canada, it just feels much worse than any other game lost. Just being born into it is pretty big, you can tell.”
Another heated rivalry in the sport is that of the U.S. and Russia, which Team USA came out on top of in both a preliminary-round game on Thursday, 4-2, and the semifinal on Friday, 3-0.
“When you look back on this – if someone tells you you’re going to win a gold medal, you’re going to beat Russia back-to-back nights and come back and beat Canada, it’s pretty hard to believe,” U.S. coach Scott Paluch said. “What a great accomplishment by this group.”
Paluch said the start of the gold-medal game was key, in which his team was able to notch a 2-0 lead after a goal by TJ Walsh in the first period, with an assist from Jonathan Gruden and Jack DeBoer, and one from DeBoer in the second, with assist from Jacob Pivonka and Jacob Semik. Pivonka tied with Weiss as the team’s leading goal-scorers of the tournament, with five apiece.
Canada managed to score in the second period, but a goal by Christian Krygier two minutes later would further the Americans’ lead to 3-1. The Canadians scored again in the third, with less than nine minutes to go, causing the U.S. worry until Weiss and Wise came through with their key goals in the final minutes. Drew DeRidder’s goalkeeping skills were also vital to the win, with 23 saves in the game.
In addition to being the first medal for the U.S. at a Youth Olympic Games, the win marked the first by a U.S. men’s team at an Olympic or Youth Olympic Games since 1980.
“That was such a significant event for everybody in the United States, whether you were an athlete, whether you were a hockey player or just a U.S. citizen; it was something that was so remarkable,” Paluch said of the ‘miracle’ in 1980. “It was always termed a miracle and I think people sometimes forget how good that team was. They were really good players and achieved something great, and I will say one thing: This wasn’t a miracle with these guys winning. They were certainly a world-class team that just got better and better the whole tournament.”
Paluch hit the nail on the head. While clutch goals and the standout goaltending helped, the biggest key was the chemistry among the team, which had just formed less than two weeks ago.
All but one of the 17 members of the U.S. team were selected at a USA Hockey Select 15 Player Development Camp in July 2015 but, other than seeing each other there, they had never played together until arriving in Lillehammer last week. It was a stark difference from the coaching Paluch is used to.
“I think credit goes to how remarkably mature these kids are,” he said. “With Mattias Samuelsson and Ty Emberson, Jake Pivonka as captains, they were unbelievable. We had so many mature guys, and we just immediately started gelling. It didn’t take long for this group to become a pretty close team and it is unique when you get together at the airport for the very first time and you’re going down to play world-class competition.
“But it’s tremendously rewarding from our standpoint to see the kids come together and accomplish what they did.”
The team proved throughout the tournament that each member was as valuable as the next, with nine athletes scoring goals and several more contributing to them. As Paluch explained, much of that talent seen on the U.S. Youth Olympic Team is a byproduct of the American Development Model.
The ADM is a nationwide initiative that provides local associations across the country a blueprint for optimal athlete development that focuses on age-appropriate training. It places a heightened emphasis on skill development and long-term athlete development principles.
“We’re finishing year seven in the American Development Model and there has been a major focus to the proper methods of development at young ages,” said Paluch, who is a regional manager for USA Hockey’s ADM. “We’ve got some tremendously skilled kids, and when people look at this group playing here, I think there will be a focus on when you put the right priorities in place, what that can do for young kids. These guys were 7 or 8 years old when a lot of these principles started to come in.
“While we’re gaining more and more acceptance into the principles of long-term athlete development and what the American Development Model is all about, we’re starting to see some really good results.”
The blueprint created through the ADM helped the 17 U.S. players reach their historic gold medal in Norway, and Paluch anticipates it will continue to lead them to future success at under-18 and under-20 world championships, and beyond.
“There are some outstanding players here,” Paluch said. “We want to continue to grow our overall player pool; we want to continue to grow participation. USA Hockey is in a really good place, and we want to continue to improve.”