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USA Hockey’s quest for World Junior gold kicks off in Everett

Team USA prepares for practice in Everett as they look for a fourth straight medal in the World Junior Championships (USA Hockey)

EVERETT – It wasn’t that long ago when the thought of a USA hockey team winning any kind of medal in an international tournament was the stuff of miracles.

But as Team USA took the ice this weekend at the Angel of The Winds Arena in Everett to prepare for the 2019 World Junior Championship to be played in Victoria and Vancouver, they were not only thinking about a medal, they were thinking about gold.

Things have changed as hockey in the United States has grown by leaps and bounds.

Prior to 2010, the Americans only won World Junior gold once, in 2004. On top of that, Team USA had only earned silver once (1997) and bronze three times. The USA won gold in 2010 and since then they’ve won two more gold and three bronze medals – including last year’s bronze in Buffalo.

When they open play against Slovokia Dec. 26th in Victoria, they will be looking to win their fourth straight medal.

“It’s the first time we’ve ever medal’ed three years in a row and that’s a testament to where USA hockey is going,” University of Michigan star Josh Norris said after practice Saturday. “Obviously our goal is to win gold and that will be a challenge for us.”

The World Junior Championships has become one of the most important international hockey tournaments over the past decade. It’s made up of the world’s best players under the age of 20 and is a showcase of future NHL players.

You’ll be hard pressed to find a current NHL star who didn’t represent his country in this tournament. The Seattle Thunderbirds have recently seen players like Mathew Barzal (Canada), Scott Eansor (USA), Alexander True (Denmark) and Shea Theodore (Canada) play in it. Current Thunderbird Andrej Kukuca is in camp with his native Slovakia.

Norris is one of seven players with Team USA who were taken in the first round of the NHL Draft. He was taken by San Jose in 2017 before being traded to Ottawa in the Erik Karlsson deal this summer. Of the 29 players invited to Everett this weekend, 25 of them have been drafted by an NHL team.

One of the four not drafted is Jack Hughes, who just happens to be the consensus choice to be taken first overall in this coming June’s NHL Draft. In a word, this team is loaded.

“I think we’re balanced,” Team USA general manager John Vanbriesbrouck said. “We’re good in goal, on D and we have good forwards. It’s going to be a team that wins by committee…its exciting when you have the potential first overall pick with you.”

Having Hughes in camp is a bonus and he understandably demands a lot attention from fans and media. He drew many ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’ over the weekend with his blazing speed and play-making ability.

He’s just trying to enjoy the moment for what it is.

“I’m just excited to play in the World Juniors,” Hughes said. “Growing up it was such a dream to play in the World Juniors, play for your country. Especially in a great venue. There should be some great crowds and it will be really exciting. I think it will be a fun three weeks and I can’t wait for it to get started.”

The venues, in both Victoria and Vancouver, should provide for some large and boisterous crowds. The US and Canada have developed a heated rivalry over the last decade but this year are in different groups. That means they would not face each other until the medal round, if both advance.

Canada is a perennial power and the tournament has become one of the country’s most watched sports events. They’ve won 17 gold medals, the most of any country and this year will be the host country which makes them even tougher to beat.

The games will be televised nationally in both countries and there is a great deal of pressure on these players.

Hughes is one of 24 guys in camp who are looking to face the World Junior Championship pressure for the first time. One of the returning players just happens to be his older brother Quinn Hughes. Quinn plays for Michigan and was taken with the seventh pick overall by the Vancouver Canucks in the 2018 draft.

Quinn Hughes and the returning players will provide leadership and advice for the new guys and Head Coach Mike Hastings likes what he sees out of the vets.

“They’ve gone to work every day,” he added. “They haven’t assumed that they’re back on top of this club until they’ve earned it. I’ve appreciated that as a coach.”

Hastings, who coaches at Minnesota State University, has the task of getting a thrown together team to gel in time for the start of the tournament.

His practices this weekend were well organized and intended to install his structure while also beginning to build some chemistry. One thing that was apparent is that the team has speed.

A lot of speed.

“I want to be a team that plays fast,” Hastings said. “I know a lot of people are trying to play that way now and you’ve got to have the tools in the box to be able do that. I think we’ve got a group that can do that. So, we’re going to try and play with a lot of pace, whether we have (the puck) or don’t. Take away time and space when we don’t have it and try to create it when we do.”

After Monday’s scrimmage the team loaded onto a bus to make the trek to Kamloops, B.C. where they will play a couple of exhibition games.

Cuts must be made eventually as they need to trim the roster from 29 down to 23.

“I think we have to maximize the time that we have with the players here in order to make our decision,” Vanbriesbrouck said about the roster. “I think we’re going to use the two games for everybody. We’ll probably go to (Dec. ) 23rd. It’s a small sample size, we have a small window.”

The choices will be tough as the team has a lot of talent.

Guys like Jack Hughes and Norris make up a strong group of forwards that should be able to provide a great deal of offense as they are dripping with skill. On the blue line, Quinn Hughes will log a ton of ice time for the US but the group is not as strong as other teams in the tournament.

It may come down to goaltending.

Team USA has three goalies in camp — Kyle Keyser, Spencer Knight, Cayden Primeau – and both Hastings and Vanbriesbrouck said that the competition was wide open. Knight is the most intriguing of the three as he is only 17-years-old and considered one of the best US goaltending prospects in a long time.

Can he handle the pressure in a tournament that is mostly made up of 19-year-olds? We may find out.

“We’ve got a couple of guys that we feel comfortable with and can go out and carry the ball and win us a hockey game,” Hastings said of his goalies. “Over a tournament where you’re playing a lot of games, it’s nice to be able to use multiple players. If you’ve got somebody who goes out and takes the ball and never gives it up, separates themselves I think you’ve got to look at that also.”

The tournament starts on Boxing Day and the medal rounds get going January 4th in Vancouver. All the games will be televised on the NHL Network and will provide for entertaining hockey.

“This tournament has become one of the best tournaments in the world, with future stars,” Hastings said. “To have an opportunity to represent your country and surrounded by the staff that I am, it’s exciting. We know we have a lot of work to do so we’re really trying to stay day by day.”

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