International Ice Hockey Federation

Sweet returns

Sweet returns

U.S. back at site of first World Junior gold

Published 26.12.2015 00:24 GMT+2 | Author Ryan O'Leary
Sweet returns
Team USA’s Jake Dowell (L), Patrick O’Sullivan (C) and Zach Parise (R) celebrate after winning the 2004 World Juniors in Helsinki. Photo: Pekka Sakki / AFP / Getty Images
Anniversaries are best celebrated in neat increments such as five, ten and twenty-five years. It’s easier that way.

But don’t tell that to USA Hockey, which celebrates a crucial 12-year anniversary when it returns to Finland for the 2016 IIHF World Junior Championship in Helsinki.

It was 2004 – when the tournament was last held in Finland – when the United States earned its first World Junior gold medal.

That momentous victory ended a 27-year gold medal drought in which the United States won just three total medals.

“It was a breakthrough that a lot of people worked hard to achieve,” said Jim Johannson, 2016 U.S. National Junior Team general manager.

“From a personal standpoint, knowing that core of players, it was nice to see them get their just reward,” Johannson finished.

That core, featuring long-time Team USA members such as Zach Parise, Ryan Suter, Ryan Kesler and Drew Stafford, put together an incredible run at the Christmas time classic that seemed to pick up steam as the games increased in importance.

“We knew we had a good team,” said forward Zach Parise looking back on the 2004 team. “It was pretty much the same group that won the U18 tournament two years before. It was a special group that got better as the tournament went on.”

In the preliminary round, the Americans easily won Group A with wins over Austria, Slovakia and Sweden. Yet, it was a 4-1 New Year’s Eve victory over Russia – led by Alexander Ovechkin and Yevgeni Malkin – that propelled the U.S. into the knockout rounds with increased confidence.

Parise notched two goals and one assist against Russia, en route to being named Tournament MVP.

“We had played against Ovechkin and Malkin for years, and they were dominant then as well, so shutting them down was definitely a great feeling,” said defenceman Ryan Suter.

The win catapulted the U.S. directly to a semi-final match against the host in front of 6,965 rabid Finnish supporters at the Helsinki Ice Hall.

“I just remember it being a very loud and hostile environment,” said Suter. “We had to be at our best in that environment.”

The two nations engaged in a physical, tight-checking match, but the Americans gained an early 1-0 advantage in the first period via a shorthanded marker from Steve Werner.

“Our guys had great energy and felt like they had the game where they wanted it throughout,” Johannson remembered.

The Americans enjoyed that one goal-margin until Dan Fritsche scored at even strength with just six minutes remaining in the tournament’s penultimate game.

Despite being down 2-0, Finland refused to go away on home ice as Teemu Nurmi capitalized on a U.S. penalty, cutting the deficit in half with just one minute remaining in the game. Unfortunately for the Lions, the search for a game-tying goal came up short and the Americans returned to the gold medal game for the first time since 1997.

“It was a really, really tight checking game,” said Parise. “The atmosphere was loud, but we were able to score early and that took the fans out of the game. From there, we played with the lead, defended well and found a way to the gold medal game.

The narrow victory set up a showdown between the U.S. and rival Canada. The Americans entered the game with the memory of 1997, when Canada blanked Team USA 2-0 in the gold medal game.

That was the first and last time the United States played for the title, so the group entered that final game with a lot to prove. Meanwhile, Canada served as heavy favorites, buoyed by future superstars Sidney Crosby, Jeff Carter, Dion Phaneuf and Ryan Getzlaf on a roster full of future NHL first round picks.

After the first period in which both teams swapped goals, Canada took the screws to the United States in the second, gaining a 3-1 lead off goals from Nigel Dawes and Anthony Stewart.

While gold medal hopes might have seemed slim, Johannson says the U.S. locker room remained vigilant.

“I never saw a look of defeat in the game,” he said. “Coming out for the third period we looked like a team that was anxious to play not just wondering what was going to happen.”

“That’s the thing about the tournaments, you never think you’re out no matter the score and that was our feeling going into the third period,” Suter said of the U.S. mindset.

At the 4:39 mark of the third period, that anxious American squad cut the deficit to just one goal when Patrick O’Sullivan wired a wrister from the left faceoff dot past Canadian goalie Marc-Andre.

“The O’Sullivan goal was big-time and I think that lifted our players,” said Johannson.

“That was the most pivotal point of the game.”

Just over two minutes later, Ryan Kesler swatted home a rebound off a Dan Richmond shot to tie the game at three goals apiece. Kesler had suffered an eye injury earlier in the tournament and his status was in doubt. He decided to play through the injury and his determination on the tying goal was yet another microcosm of the 2004 team’s resiliency.

After the Kesler goal, the two rivals remained knotted for roughly another eight minutes of the third period, until O’Sullivan beat goaltender Fleury to another loose puck just outside the Canadian crease and poked in the go-ahead goal.

The U.S. bench erupted when that gritty goal snuck past Fleury and then again when the final horn sounded, giving the United States its first World Junior gold medal.

Looking back on the significance of the moment, Johannson said it as a huge weight off the program’s shoulders.

“Obviously there was a lot of relief,” he began. “We got rewarded for doing the right work. That core broke the barrier and felt rewarded for all the hard work that went into getting in that position.”

For Parise and Suter, both see the 2004 tournament as not only a high point in their illustrious careers, but also a turning point for the U.S. National Team.

“Hopefully people look back at that team and appreciate what we did,” Parise said proudly. “As far as the program is concerned, if you look at the talent and first round picks the U.S. is developing now, you can see we’re headed in the right direction.”

“It was just time for USA Hockey to get on the map,” said Suter. “Now things are totally different in terms of the talent pool and the success.”

The impact of that victory is tangible for the United States – just look at the results. Since 2004, the United States has medaled four times, including titles in 2010 and 2013. But more importantly, the U.S. reputation at the tournament has changed significantly. The Americans serve as perennial title contenders, which is a long way from the “also ran” moniker the team suffered under for years.

This year’s team enters the 2016 tournament with great expectations as well, which Johansson believes all started right there in Finland 12 years ago.

“That team raised the expectation bar, and now, every U.S. team wants to emulate that,” said Johannson. “Each new group has real imagery after watching guys from the past raise the trophy and put gold medals around their necks.”

“It makes it that much more real.”

It won’t get any more real than starting the 2016 campaign with an opening game against Canada the day after Christmas in Group A play.


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