It’s little more than a patch stitched to a hockey sweater, but the logo on the front of a jersey can make all the difference in the world between friend and foe.
For most college hockey players, an intense rivalry is defined by a season-long battle full of feisty plays and dramatic finishes. A Harvard player, for example, would rather eat a hockey puck than skate on a line with his Yale counterpart.
The 2008 IIHF World Junior Championship forced many college players to make the move from conference rivals to national teammates, and also forced college teammates to become international rivals.
The brevity of the tournament, which ran from Dec. 26, 2007 to Jan. 5, 2008, meant the players on the U.S. National Junior Team had to do a quick about-face once the tournament started and then flip back when they returned to NCAA play.
For example, after helping lead Team USA to a fourth-place finish, the universities of Denver and Wisconsin met on Jan. 11, pitting Wisconsin defenseman Jamie McBain against Denver forwards Tyler Ruegsegger and Rhett Rakhshani.
The players said the quick switch didn’t have much affect on how they felt about their opponents or their friends.
“When you’re on the ice it doesn’t matter who you’re playing against,” said McBain, who led U.S. Players with a plus-4 in the tournament. “It’s the player in the other jersey that you’re doing everything you can to beat and the player who’s in your jersey you’re doing everything you can to try to win for.”
Still, playing for Team USA creates a special bond that will carry back into the college season and beyond.
“You have a bond and you always will, sharing the USA jersey, and that stays with you for life,” said University of Minnesota sophomore Mike Carman, one of six returnees from last year’s squad.
DU’s Ruegsegger added that the U.S. team was fortunate there wasn’t any bad blood between any players before heading to the tournament.
“We all give each other [grief] now and then, some more than others, but other than that it’s nothing serious,” he said.
In making the transition from college teammates to World Junior rivals, longtime buddies will inevitably meet in the corners or in front of the net. Carman said that while he would never relent against a friend, he also would never take extra liberties.
“You’re not going to go do something cheap to one of your buddies,” Carman said. “You’re going to play hard against them; it’s not like I’m going to let up on one of my friends if I’m going in for a hit, but I’m not going to do anything that’s going to risk injury to them or risk something to my team like a penalty.”
U.S. player Blake Geoffrion, another returning player, experienced a reversed rivalry swap at the World Juniors. He plays for Wisconsin alongside Canadian Kyle Turris, who reportedly told Canadian Press that Geoffrion had been taunting him during the tournament with e-mails.
Geoffrion didn’t comment on the incident during the tournament and neglected to talk about it afterward other than in generic terms.
“In the game of hockey, once you’re going against each other, there are really no friends on the ice,” he said. “[Turris] plays hard against me and I play hard against him.”
Geoffrion used U.S. teammate Chris Summers (University of Michigan) as an example of what happens when two friends off the ice run into each other during a game.
“Everyone knows that everything stays on the ice and everyone respects each other,” he said.
That philosophy will be put to the test once Geoffrion and Turris return to the Badgers’ bench and begin the push toward a strong finish and a Frozen Four berth.
Still, the rivalries will always have their moments, where one player’s cherished memory is like a dagger in the heart for another.
McBain said his favorite college rivalry moment came when Wisconsin snapped Minnesota’s 22-game win streak in January 2007, which brought a sarcastic grin from Carman.
Colorado College forward Bill Sweatt smiled when he thought back on taking the coveted Gold Pan from Denver in March 2007, a memory that left the Pioneer’s Ruegsegger rolling his eyes.
McBain said rough physical play wouldn’t be the best way to get under a friend’s skin anyway.
“I’d much rather score on a friend than have to pick a fight with them on the ice,” he said.
It’s the player in the other jersey that you’re doing everything you can to beat and the player who’s in your jersey you’re doing everything you can to try to win for.”
— Jamie McBain
Rivalries aren’t limited to just players. Coaches can also find themselves in the mix.
American coaches Keith Allain, head coach of Yale University, and Patrick Foley, an assistant coach with Harvard University, have only stood on opposing benches once in competition, but they recognize the importance of the Ivy League rivalry.
“Going back it’ll probably be more fun,” Allain said. “The Harvard and Yale rivalry is what it is, but it makes it a little bit more personal now that I’ve been able to know Fols a bit.”
Foley, in his first year as an assistant at Harvard, had similar sentiments to what the U.S. players shared about the logo on the jersey dictating friendship on the ice.
“Myself and Keith happen to be rivals when we go home as coaches but that has nothing to do with what our mission here is,” he said during the tournament.
“There’s always a time and place for competitive spirit to come out. We always preach to our guys that you’re always a U.S. player no matter to what college team you play for, and the same goes for us coaches.”
Photos by IIHF/HHOF Images on Ice