Future looks bright for Team USA after World Juniors win
Posted: Monday January 5, 2004 5:21PM; Updated: Monday January 5, 2004 6:10PM
The United States finally has a second international hockey moment to rival the Miracle on Ice.
Call this one the Fluke in Finland.
Except it really wasn't a fluke. In all honesty, it was eight years in the making.
The Americans' 4-3 come-from-behind victory over Canada on Monday at the 2004 IIHF World Junior Championships in Helsinki, Finland, won't go down in the annals of sports history like the Miracle on Ice. Team USA was actually the pre-tournament favorite in Finland, not unfathomable underdogs as they were in 1980 against the Soviet Union. But the United States' miracle comeback in the third period could have more long-term significance for the future of American hockey than the gold medal in the Lake Placid Games nearly 24 years ago.
Team USA's first World Junior Hockey Championships gold medal may be the harbinger of a golden age for American hockey, as the core of this team has played together regularly in international competition for several years. This bunch won the 2002 IIHF World Under-18 Championship in Piestany, Slovakia, before taking fourth in the 2003 World Juniors in Halifax, Nova Scotia. And with the 2005 tournament to be held in Grand Forks, N.D., it will allow the Americans to defend the title on home ice, a superb chance for the long-ignored tournament to finally gain deserved recognition in the United States.
The U.S. had won just three medals in the previous 27 World Junior tournaments (bronze in 1986 and '92, and silver in '97), but a spirited third-period rally, and a fortuitous bounce off of a Canadian defender, made the Americans golden for the first time ever. Marc-Andre Fleury's clearing attempt found defenseman Braydon Coburn's right shoulder and deflected past the sprawling Fleury into the back of the net with 14:48 to play, with the goal credited to Patrick O'Sullivan. It proved that the loonie painted on Fleury's goalie mask wasn't as lucky as the one buried beneath the E Center ice in Salt Lake City.
Fleury was so spectacular in last year's tournament, but he struggled with his positioning, rebound control and puckhandling through this year's tourney, despite Canada's offensive dominance. It was an unfortunate ending to the gold medal game for Fleury, because through the first two periods he had played his best game of the tournament.
Al Montoya was named the top goalie in the tournament, and, much like Fleury used his impressive performance in last year's tournament to catapult himself to the top pick in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft, Montoya's stock for the 2004 draft will soar as a result of his amazing play over the past 10 days. Montoya stopped Sidney Crosby and Ryan Getzlaf early in the third, then prevented left winger Nigel Dawes from wrapping up his hat trick with a sprawling stop at 11:44 with help from defenseman Ryan Suter.
Canada did a nice job shutting down tournament MVP Zach Parise in the first two periods, playing its top quintet of Getzlaf, Jeff Carter, Brent Burns, Dion Phaneuf and Derek Meech against the Americans' first unit in order to force Parise to backcheck more vigorously. But a strategy change by Team USA head coach Mike Eaves in the second intermission changed the flow of the game.
Eaves sent Dan Richmond, Mark Stuart, Suter and Jim Wisniewski up ice more frequently from their rearguard positions, and moved Ryan Kesler from the second line to the first, dropping Brady Murray off the left wing in order to pair Kesler with Parise and Stephen Werner. That new top line, in addition to the second line of Patrick Eaves, O'Sullivan and Drew Stafford, was responsible for creating more scoring chances in the third period than the Americans had in the first two combined.
The U.S. hadn't trailed in the tournament, but it proved to be more adept at rallying from a deficit than Canada was at holding a lead. Canada had dominated all of its games in the tournament, so it was used to playing with a lead, but the Canadians fell into too much of a comfort zone against the dangerous Americans.
"We weren't going to give up," Parise told TSN after the game. "We weren't going to stop. We kept pressing and we came out on top. We said [after the second period] that Canada hasn't seen our best yet. We were disappointed with our first two periods and they hadn't seen our best hockey. We showed it to them in the third period and we got the gold."
There is an old cliché that says the most dangerous lead in hockey is a two-goal lead. That stems from the fact that teams don't know whether to push forward and salt the game away by extending it to three or to fall back into a defensive posture and play conservatively. Canada tried to extend its lead, but several brilliant saves by Al Montoya and a persistent counterattack by the U.S. was Canada's undoing.
"We just didn't come out and take it to them like we were," Nigel Dawes told TSN. "We didn't get the puck in deep. A couple of little mistakes and mental errors cost us. And that last goal, you can't say anything about it. Things just weren't meant to be tonight."
It was the third consecutive year that Canada blew a third-period lead in the gold medal game, a disturbing trend for a country that doesn't like settling for second place in the game that it invented, especially to its neighbors from the south.
"I think we should have our heads up," Team Canada head coach Mario Durocher told TSN after the game. "It was a bad bounce in the third period. I think we were nervous at the beginning of the game. We got it to 1-1 and got it rolling a bit more in the second period with a 3-1 lead. But I think the puck was turning on their side in the third period, and I think that fourth goal was a lucky goal."
Canada can take some solace in the knowledge that 13 players from this team can return next year, as well as NHLers Patrice Bergeron and Nathan Horton, if the Bruins and Panthers make them eligible.
In Canada's defense, the result most assuredly would've been different if its full compliment of NHL players had been released for the tournament. With Rick Nash, Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Jay Bouwmeester, Eric Staal, Bergeron and Horton, a gold would've been a more likely result. However, the U.S. was missing starting goaltender Jimmy Howard and Dustin Brown of the L.A. Kings, both of whom were injured just before the tournament began.
Junior hockey in the United States advanced significantly in 1996 when USA Hockey president Walter Bush founded the U.S. National Training Development Program Team in Ann Arbor, Mich. The U.S. National Under-18 Team plays more than 120 games against international competition, college teams and teams from the North American Hockey League (NAHL) in an effort to gain experience against older, more physically mature players.
It's safe to say that less than eight years after the program was started, it has been a rousing success. And the man behind the bench for the Americans' first WJC triumph is a big reason why.
The 47-year-old Eaves coached many of the 2004 Team USA players during his two years with the NTDP, before taking the coaching job at his alma mater, Wisconsin, in 2002. Eaves was a three-year captain at Wisconsin and remains the school's all-time leading scorer. He went on to a 324-game NHL career with the North Stars and Flames.
"What this does is substantiate the USA Hockey National Team Development Program," Eaves said. "It's not the perfect program, but, obviously, it's doing something some very good things. We still need to learn from other countries, but we have something good going. Let's run with it."
Eaves also played for Team USA in the 1976 and '78 World Championships, as well as the 1981 and 1984 Canada Cups. He has shown his deft coaching ability on the international stage in short period of time, with the patience and positive nature learned from Badger Bob Johnson serving as key attributes behind the U.S. bench. Much like Badger Bob was one of the key faces for USA Hockey two decades ago, Eaves is likely to be on the American hockey scene for a long time to come -- as is the core of this U.S. team.
The names Parise, Kesler, O'Sullivan, Suter, Stuart, Wisniewski and Montoya likely are to be at the forefront of international hockey for a long time to come. They may not have the same dramatic place in history as Mike Eruzione, Mark Johnson and Jim Craig. But they could become this generation's Jeremy Roenick, Keith Tkachuk, Tony Amonte, Gary Suter, Brian Leetch, Chris Chelios and Mike Richter -- players who competed together as the core of Team USA in multiple international tournaments.
And maybe the World Juniors will finally gain a following in the States as a result of this historic victory.
Jon A. Dolezar covers the NHL for SI.com.