In 2010, Dean Blais honed the raw emotion of USA’s world junior team into a disciplined laser beam, culminating in a gold medal win in overtime over Canada on enemy soil. After Yale’s Keith Allain helped the Americans win bronze in Buffalo, Blais returned, but left the magic at his college post at Nebraska-Omaha. The U.S. played to avoid relegation and ended the 2012 tourney squeaking by Switzerland for seventh.
So how will new coach Phil Housley get the most out of his rowdy group? “You’ve got to have fun,” he says. “There’s going to be enough pressure, not only from the outside, but from themselves as well.”
Housley knows of which he speaks. Not only is he an NHL legend – fourth all-time in scoring by a D-man and second among U.S.-born players to Mike Modano – he’s also competed internationally as a player and coach. He has been in two world championships in Russia and also behind the bench as an assistant for Team USA at the world juniors, world under-18s and World Championship. That experience was evident to potential recruits at Team USA’s summer tryout camp in Lake Placid, N.Y.
“The main thing is he knows the game,” says goaltender John Gibson, one of three returning players from last year’s squad (joining J.T. Miller and Jacob Trouba). “He was one of the greatest American defensemen ever and you look at the way he coached, you could tell he knew what to do and what we need to do to be successful. He knows our mindset and that will help us a lot.”
That’s key in a short tournament played a world away from home fans. “We’re going to have to build chemistry as soon as we can,” Housley says. “When you go over there, you’re family. We’re going to have to lean on each other for the battle.”
Roster turnover can erase memories of 2012’s collapse, but there’s a lesson to learn from it.
“There’s a balance of excitement and energy – they are all under 20,” says Jim Johannson, assistant executive director of hockey operations for USA Hockey. “They have to make good decisions and they need a calming influence.”
This is where Housley’s experience comes in. Having played internationally, he knows the game is officiated differently than NCAA or junior – fans know any big hit eliciting “oohs” and “ahhs” from the crowd is often whistled as a penalty shortly thereafter – but that can’t be an excuse if the U.S. starts a parade to the box.
“The big word that comes to mind,” Housley says, “is ‘discipline.’ ”
Preparation will also be important. Unlike Canada, where most players come from the Canadian Hockey League, the U.S. draws from major junior and the NCAA, meaning different needs. The CHLers will already have played a packed schedule, while the college kids enter the tournament with mentally draining exams just behind them. Plus, the talent pool has become so deep in the U.S. that sacrifices must be made for the good of the team.
“You might be a first-line power play guy back home, but here you’re a third-line penalty-killer,” Johannson says. “So you better do a damn good job as a third-line penalty-killer.”
Housley coaches the Stillwater Ponies high school team back in his native Minnesota, in a league where teams tend to lean on two lines. He has a solid pool of players to draw from for Team USA and would like two scoring lines, an energy line and a momentum-swinging fourth line. The challenge in Ufa will be pointing all those kids in the same direction.