It’s 15 frigid winters ago, and the planet’s best under-20 hockey players gather in Helsinki, Finland, to compete in the 2004 World Junior Championship. The mighty Russians have won the past two tournaments and the Czechs the two before that. It’s been seven years since a North American squad won the gold, but this year offers the continent’s best hope since then. The Americans have never won the world juniors but arrive in Helsinki picked by most pundits to finally do it. They bring a talented group led by star forwards Zach Parise, Patrick O’Sullivan and Ryan Kesler, with Ryan Suter, Matt Carle and James Wisniewski on defense. Most of the team has played together internationally for years.
MIKE EAVES, COACH, USA: Before the World Junior Championship, two years before, we had won the under-18 championship with basically the same group of boys. So going into the tournament, people knew we had a pretty good team, and we didn’t sneak up on anybody. People understood that the group of players had been together, what the makeup was, and I think we had some respect.
RYAN SUTER, D, USA: Our expectation was, “There’s no reason why we can’t win it.” We knew it had never been done before, but we also knew we had a good team. A lot of us had played together on different teams when we were a little bit younger, so we had a close-knit group.
ZACH PARISE, LW, USA: I remember someone saying something about us being the favorites going into the tournament. But you always think in your own mind, “The Russians are going to be really good. The Canadians obviously are going to be good.”
PATRICK O’SULLIVAN, LW, USA: The majority of Canada’s best players were 18-year-olds. When you turn on the TV every year, the first thing that comes out of Bob McKenzie’s mouth is, “It’s a 19-year-old tournament.” And for the most part it is. I played in three WJCs, and it wasn’t until the third one and I was 19 that I felt completely confident in what I could do out there. The point being, with us being the favorite, we all knew, “If this comes down to what we think it’s going to come down to…”
Team USA lives up to its billing in the round-robin, outscoring opponents 21-4 in four games. The Canadians also win every round-robin game, outscoring opponents 25-4. Both nations earn byes to the semifinal. The U.S. scrapes by Finland 2-1 while Canada pummels the Czechs 7-1, setting up an epic gold-medal game. Despite being the favorites, it’s tough for the Americans to ignore what the Canadians did in the semis. They boast superior star power, including first-round NHL draftees Jeff Carter, Ryan Getzlaf and Mike Richards at center and the reigning No. 1 overall draft pick, stud goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury.
SUTER: With Canada there’s always…not nerves, but they’re always the team to beat in these tournaments. I think we knew, if we wanted to win, we’d need to end up beating them.
EAVES: We had an unbelievable semifinal game against Finland in their own country, but it was a war, and then we had Canada two days later. There’s always apprehension about playing Canada, the history, their history. We were still unproven at the time, and they had a heck of a team. We had to climb that mountain. There was no feeling of overconfidence at all.
PARISE: They had beaten us last year. You look at the lineup they had. Even at that point, you knew all these guys were going to be stars in the NHL. So regardless of how the round-robin went, you still knew these guys were going to be really, really tough to beat. It’s wasn’t as if we thought, “Oh we’re in the gold-medal game, we’re going to do this.” It was still, “We’ve never won this before, and the Canadians have won a bunch.”
Adding to Canada’s mystique: a budding phenom named Sidney Crosby, named to the team at just 16 and already subject to a swarm of international media attention despite being more than a year away from NHL draft eligibility.
PARISE: I had skated with him a handful of times, but I didn’t really know much about him other than that he was ripping up the Quebec League at the time. I didn’t have a book on him or anything.
BLAIR MACKASEY, DIRECTOR OF PLAYER PERSONNEL, CANADA: There are very few players in the history of the world juniors that have been as young as Sidney. I thought he fit in well. He didn’t have to be a dominant player. We weren’t looking for him to be a dominant player. But he did quite well in his role.
EAVES: He was playing the game in and out of the fourth line, and they’d move him up and down. He was such a talent, it was undeniable, but playing on that stage, where was his best fit going to be for that team? So we were curious and watched some other games to see where he was going to play and how he would fit in and help them. It was an adventure for us watching him as well.
The puck drops on the gold-medal game. Canada’s Nigel Dawes and Team USA’s Dan Fritsche trade goals in a tense first period, but the Americans mostly struggle to generate chances early.
O’SULLIVAN: Going into the game, we knew we were good. Favorite? Maybe on paper. But on game day, we were nervous. That’s why we started the way that we did.
PARISE: I don’t think we had even trailed in a game all the way up until the championship. So that was a different wrinkle for us. We weren’t getting a lot of offensive-zone chances. We hadn’t really faced a ton of adversity until that game.
Parise has been the tournament’s most dominant player, but Canada glues physical shutdown defenseman Dion Phaneuf to him.
PARISE: It was a frustrating game for me. I was going against Dion, and any time I was on the ice, Phaneuf was out there. Playing against Getzlaf, Carter, they had some big guys. Our line just couldn’t get anything going.
The Canadians pull away in the second with Dawes’ second goal of the game and another from Anthony Stewart. They lead 3-1 after 40 minutes, one period away from ending a seven-year gold-medal drought. Things look bleak for the Americans as they retreat to their dressing room.
O’SULLIVAN: I don’t think there was a guy in the room that thought we were going to storm back and win the game. Not against Canada. That’s the mental edge those guys have. It’s not there as much as it used to be, but it’s intimidating playing against Canada in that tournament. If you were to ask kids today, they would probably tell you the same thing. They can be overwhelming to play against. You’re down 3-1, you’re not expected to win that game, especially with the goaltender they had.
EAVES: We were playing on our heels. We hadn’t played as well as we had in other parts of the tournament, and it looked like we respected them too much. That can become part of a challenge when you’re playing against a team like Canada and the history of Canadian hockey. So after the second period we went in, and the message was, “Boys, we know that we can play better than this. They haven’t seen our best hockey. Let’s go out and show them.”
PARISE: Mike Eaves looked at me and said, “Zach, you need to be way better.” He told me in front of the team. I won’t forget that. And he was right.
O’SULLIVAN: It was just the familiarity of their relationship. I’m not sure the coach of Team Canada can ever really do that, because how well do you really know the guy you’re saying that to? Not that it’s so wrong to say that, but you need to be really sure you’re going to get the right response out of somebody if you say that to them. It’s the gold-medal game. It’s our best player.
PARISE: He got right in my face, and it was great.
O’SULLIVAN: He really pushed guys, and we would respond to it. Mike Eaves is the best coach I ever had, including anybody I had in the NHL.
Eaves juggles his lines, splitting up the trio of Parise, Brady Murray and Stephen Werner, pairing Parise with Ryan Kesler and bumping Drew Stafford up to play with O’Sullivan and Patrick Eaves – the coach’s son.
SUTER: I remember the feeling was, “We can do this.” You have to have that feeling. When I’m playing today, still, in the third period, if you’re down, you feel like, “If we chip away at this and we play our way, we’ll find a way to get back into this thing.” Honestly, it was that same feeling back then.
SIDNEY CROSBY, C, CANADA: You dream about playing for that team as a kid and winning gold, and to be up two goals going into the third, you think you’re in pretty good shape…
The third period begins, and Crosby almost ices the game for Canada. He gets sprung for a juicy chance on a 2-on-1, but U.S. goalie Al Montoya robs him with a glove save. Shortly thereafter, Montoya stops Getzlaf on another golden chance in the slot.
EAVES: If he doesn’t make those saves, the game’s over. But because he made those, we were able to make it 3-2, then 3-3 and the rest is history. But Al Montoya made two or three unbelievable saves early in the third period, and then the new line combinations seemed to give us a little spark.
Team USA starts to push the Canadians back on their heels. Four minutes into the period, O’Sullivan takes a cross-ice feed from Stafford and pops the water bottle with a wrist shot behind Fleury to make it 3-2. The U.S. gets a surge of adrenaline.
PARISE: We talked about how, the year before, (the Canadians) were in a similar situation against the Russians where they went into the third with the lead and ended up losing in the gold-medal game. It was a mentality of, “You get one goal, all of a sudden that changes the dynamic of the whole game.” We ended up getting the one, and once the team scores and gets the momentum, then they’re thinking about protecting the lead, they’re backing off, and all of a sudden we were able to get in the zone and get some chances.
Less than three minutes later, Kesler crashes the crease. He jams a rebound into Fleury. The puck pops into the air, directly above his head, and drops into Canada’s net. It’s a tie game, 3-3.
PARISE: Fleury was paddle-down, and it just somehow bounced over him. All of a sudden our bench has got all that momentum and all that jam and energy, and it’s deflating for the other side. After that, magically, you find your legs, and everyone’s going and going, and we’re buzzing, and the other team is just trying to hang on.
O’SULLIVAN: Now we’re tied, and that’s not something that happens to Canada. They don’t blow two-goal leads, and they knew it, and I think they were shocked.
With just over five minutes remaining in the third period, O’Sullivan receives a stretch pass and splits Canadian defenders Braydon Coburn and Brent Seabrook.
O’SULLIVAN: I have at least half a step on Seabrook. So I’m thinking, at the very least, I’m gonna get a pretty good scoring chance, maybe even a breakaway if I can get inside position. Then I get hooked and get turned around, but I know the puck’s going slow, so I’m just continuing to pressure the puck, maybe draw a penalty. In today’s game, that’s probably a penalty shot.
O’Sullivan can’t corral the puck, but he keeps chasing it aggressively as it slides toward Fleury.
O’SULLIVAN: You’re trying to make sure you don’t let up in any way, because, frankly, I think most goalies believe they can make better plays than they’re capable of when they have to play the puck.
At 14:48 of the third period, it happens: one of the most iconic moments in World Junior Championship history. With little time to think, Fleury tries to one-touch flip the puck out of the zone…and clears it right into Coburn. It ricochets backward into Canada’s net. The U.S. takes a 4-3 lead.
PARISE: How in the hell did that even happen?
EAVES: I looked down at (assistant coach) John Hynes almost in disbelief, like, “Did that just happen?” It’s amazing.
PARISE: Here’s the best goalie and the No. 1 overall pick…it was unthinkable that an error like that was going to happen at that time of the game.
BRAYDON COBURN, D, CANADA: With Marc-Andre, it was just unlucky. I don’t even know how to explain it. It was just one of those things that happened.
O’SULLIVAN: It’s kind of funny, because I look like a jackass celebrating the way I did, but I thought the puck hit me. If you watch the replay, I’m facing our net for the second or two that Fleury actually shoots the puck. It starts to go in, and I’m turned around, so I didn’t see. I had no idea that he had hit Coburn. I’m like, “Oh my god, it hit my leg and went in the net?”
SUTER: I was just in shock that it went in the way it did, but we’ll take it.
BRENT SEABROOK, D, CANADA: It was fast. Once it started rolling downhill, it kept rolling, but you’ve got to give the Americans a lot of credit. They had a great team. Once they smelled blood, they kept going.
EAVES: As a coach, no matter how much you feel you are in charge or you influence a game, with strategy or personnel or lineup or diet or off-ice training, to win a championship, there’s always an X-factor that’s out of your control. This was our X-factor that was out of our control. When it’s your time, it’s your time.
Ecstatic after the goal, the Americans have to refocus. They have five minutes of clock to kill before they can call themselves gold medallists.
O’SULLIVAN: That’s an example of situations our team knew how to handle. We can rely on our system. We know we have certain guys who are really good defensively. A guy like Jake Dowell, he’s gonna go out and take a faceoff if we need it. Kesler’s going to play at lot at that point. Patrick Eaves will play.
PARISE: It’s nerve-racking. It’s exciting. Everyone is trying to get in the way of every puck, not trying to let anything get to the net and just being as smart as you can.
O’SULLIVAN: We knew that we couldn’t score like Canada could score, but we knew we could defend as well as anybody, without a doubt. Once we get up in that game, we know we’re going to play our system.
PARISE: You think the clock is never moving. It just does not want to move. But with the excitement that was on the bench at the potential of where we were all of a sudden, from us being down 3-1 to all of a sudden leading this game, whatever we can do to close it out, we’re going to do it.
The final seconds tick down. The Americans have done it. They’ve captured their first World Junior Championship. It’s a frenzy of ecstasy as the bench clears. The U.S. players pile onto each other at breakneck speed.
PARISE: You’re just that excited. Your emotions take over, the adrenaline. During the pile-on, the last thing you’re thinking about is being gentle or being careful with anyone.
EAVES: I remember Hynes and I coming together on the bench, but it was almost like a calmness. The guys are going crazy, but as a coach it’s a different feel than a player, because the play gets so emotional, and you release that emotion by throwing your gloves and sticks and helmets in the air and jumping up and down. There’s almost a calmness amongst the coaches, like, “We’ve achieved what we set out to do.” And you gather and hug and you go out to shake everybody’s hand.
O’SULLIVAN: You’re a little bit surprised that you actually came back and did it, mainly because of who you’re playing. The amount of respect you have for Canada, the amount of respect they have internationally…for me, it was just pure joy.
As overjoyed as the Americans are, the Canadians are just as devastated, especially losing the way they did.
NIGEL DAWES, LW, CANADA: We really couldn’t believe what just happened and the way it happened. It took a bit of time to honestly get over it. We were at a loss for words and very disappointed with the way it went.
CROSBY: All of a sudden, things turn quickly, and you’re disappointed. You don’t know if you’ll get an opportunity to do it again.
MACKASEY: That loss, of all my years as a coach or involved…it still hurts me to this day for whatever reason. Any coach or manager will tell you, the losses stay with you a lot longer than the wins do, and this one has. After we won the two following years, someone came up to me and said, “Congratulations, you won two years in a row,” and the first thing out of my mouth was, “Should’ve been three.” And (Hockey Canada CEO) Bob Nicholson said to me, “Just get over it.” I have a hard time getting over it, that’s for sure.
It’s time for Team USA to celebrate the victory, and every minute the players and coaches have is precious this last night in Helsinki.
EAVES: I remember us going as a group, parents, coaches, administrators, team doctors. We were able to get to a restaurant together and just move around a little as just the core group, just to chat and share and hug, and that was a really good moment. Nobody wanted to go to bed. You wanted to stay up as long as you could, because when you went to bed and woke up the next day, it signified that the moment was over. The next day it’s a new day. You’ve got to move on and start living again.
O’SULLIVAN: The coaches stayed with us the entire night. We saw the Canada guys a little bit, and their coaches certainly weren’t gonna want to do that. And, frankly, in most cases, the coaches shouldn’t. But for us, the way it was…I lived with Mike Eaves for a year. A lot of our guys from Minnesota had gone to high school together or played against each other in high school. So there was just that element to it.
PARISE: I don’t think anyone ended up going to bed. Everyone went right to the bus, right to the plane. We had a really good time celebrating.
O’SULLIVAN: That’s kind of the last tournament where you’re just playing because you love to play. Yeah, guys are drafted, but for the most part nobody’s been signed yet. We had Kesler who’d played in the NHL a little bit before that tournament, but you’re still a kid, deep down. And you haven’t been beaten down by the business side of the game or certain coaches or any of that stuff.
The 2004 tournament changes things permanently for the winning program, and the losing one, too. The ripple effect of the crazy finish is felt for years to come.
EAVES: It gave credibility to the program and helped USA Hockey have another avenue to develop their players. It’s a top-end program, but there are many, many ways to develop hockey players in the United States, and this was one avenue. You’ve got the USHL, all the junior leagues, but the National Development Program was still trying to be recognized for what it was, and until they won something like that, it was always going to be in question.
MACKASEY: If there was one positive from losing, we looked at things from a critical standpoint and decided we needed to do things a little differently and a little better, and it paid off going forward. We won five in a row as a country. Maybe if we win that 2004 tournament, we don’t do anything, we just stay status quo and, happy as we are, don’t go forward and win as many as we do.
COBURN: It’s heartbreaking. It’s the world juniors, it’s the pinnacle of junior hockey, and it’s a tough pill to swallow, but one of the things you learn in hockey right away is you move past those things. So it was a good thing for us returning guys that we got another crack at it, and I feel sorry for the guys who didn’t.
SUTER: I don’t think you think about that it’s never been done before. You’re just happy to win, and after it’s all over and you’re back with your other team, then you hear everyone talking how it’s never been done before, and then it sinks in. It was fun to be a part of that team, the first team from the U.S. to win the world juniors. Looking back, it’s pretty special, and I feel like it helped put the U.S. on the map for international play.