Members of the U.S. men's ice hockey team celebrate their goal during the IIHF World Championship quarterfinal match between USA and Switzerland at CEZ Arena on May 14, 2015 in Ostrava, Czech Republic.
Matt Hendricks as a kid dreamed of playing ice hockey for Team USA when watching his heroes — Phil Housley and Mike Modano — gut it out for the red, white and blue.
Now Hendricks is a veteran captain on a very young American team heading into the 80th IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship this week in Russia.
The United States is one of 16 teams divided into two, eight-team pools. Team USA will begin its quest for gold when it takes on its rival, Canada, this Friday in St. Petersburg in the opening day of pool play.
While the NHL’s Stanley Cup Playoffs continue on in North America, the players on the U.S. team relish the idea of donning their new sweaters and playing for their country. All are NHL players whose teams have been eliminated or NHL prospects.
“It’s a great feeling and great pride to put on a USA jersey,” said Hendricks, a center for the Edmonton Oilers. “It’s a great opportunity to play for our country. It’s a big deal.”
Here are some things to know about the world championships.
The Americans are extremely young with an average age of 23. Auston Matthews is the youngest on the squad at 18. The right wing from Scottsdale, Arizona, is widely projected to be the first overall pick by the Toronto Maple Leafs in next month’s NHL Entry Draft. Hendricks is the grizzled veteran at 34. Most players on the roster were born in the 1990s.
“We have a very young group, but we’ve got players who are fast and can skate well,” Hendricks said. “Our offense has some great attributes. We need to work on small details and get better on defense. We just need to have everyone on the same page and learn to play well together.”
The 16 teams in the world championships are divided into two, eight-team pools (A and B). The venues are the Ice Palace in Moscow for Pool A and the Yubileyny Sports Palace in St. Petersburg. The United States will play in Pool B starting Friday against Canada.
The top four teams from each pool advance to the quarterfinal round. The semifinal and medal rounds will be May 21-22 at the Ice Palace in Moscow.
The United States will play seven games in 12 days, with back-to-back days twice during the round-robin format.
After Friday’s opener against Canada, Team USA will play Saturday against Belarus and on May 9 against Finland, May 12 against France, May 13 versus Hungary, May 15 against Germany and May 17 against Slovakia.
“Canada will be tough right away. They’re obviously a rival and it should be a great game,” Hendricks said. “If we lose an early game, we’re not going to let that dictate how we play our tournament.”
Teams in Pool A include Russia, Sweden, Switzerland, Norway, Kazakhstan, Czech Republic, Latvia and Denmark.
Hendricks captained last year’s team to a bronze-medal finish. The United States beat Russia 4-0 in round-robin play but lost 4-2 in a semifinal rematch. The Americans also lost to Belarus in last year’s round-robin portion.
Hendricks said though it was nice to walk away with bronze medal, it was a tough pill to swallow after a solid showing in the round-robin portion and quarterfinal win.
“Obviously we weren’t happy to lose a game,” Hendricks said. “We put a lot into that tournament and we had a lot of guys stepping up. We won a lot of faceoffs and we overachieved. That team was a little bit older than this year’s. But each team is different and right now it’s too early to tell.”
Last year marked the second time in three years that Team USA won a bronze medal at the world championships. The Americans also finished third in 2004 and 1996. Before that? You have to go all the way back to 1962, when Team USA also finished third.
The Americans won the tournament in 1933 and 1960, though the latter was actually the Squaw Valley 1960 Olympic Winter Games rather than a standalone tournament.
Professionals have been allowed to compete at the world championships since the late 1970s, but because the event runs concurrent with the Stanley Cup Playoffs the top national teams are typically not at full strength.
Worth Noting …
The United States team trained in Helsinki for three days and played a warm-up game with the Finland national team on Tuesday (a 3-2 overtime win by the Finns), and the Americans arrived in St. Petersburg on Wednesday. … Boston Bruins forward Frank Vatrano was added to the team this week. Vatrano previously represented the United States at the 2012 IIHF Under-18 Men’s World Championship in the Czech Republic, where he helped Team USA claim the gold medal. … U.S. goaltenders Keith Kinkaid and Mike Condon combined for 25 saves in the exhibition against Finland.
Scott McDonald is a Houston-based freelance writer who has 17 years experience in sports reporting and feature writing. He was named the State Sports Writer of the Year in 2014 by the Texas High School Coaches Association. McDonald is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.