You couldn’t turn on a television set in early April without hearing about the rising waters in the communities of Fargo, N.D., and Moorhead, Minn. The neighboring towns appeared to be on the brink of crisis when the Red River of the North, which forms the border of North Dakota and Minnesota, climbed to an alarming 40.82 feet.
As the flood waters continued to rise, so did concerns about the feasibility of hosting a 10-team world championship in the wake of a natural disaster.
It was back in February 2008 when USA Hockey announced that Fargo-Moorhead would host the 2009 IIIHF World Under-18 Championship for the first time on U.S. soil, the first of four World Championship events to be held stateside in the next four years.
With constant monitoring and a little help from Mother Nature, it was determined that the resolve of the people of the Red River Valley and the determination of the local organizing committee would not be denied.
As the members of the U.S. Men’s National Under-18 Team arrived at the new Urban Plains Center in Fargo, they knew they were home. For the first time in history, the U.S. squad would play in front of their fellow countrymen at a World Under-18 Championship.
The fact that the community had suffered through weeks of worry and endless sandbagging was not lost on Team USA. In fact, on the eve of the tournament’s opener, all 22 of the players spent time filling sandbags with citizens of the Fargo-Moorhead area. It didn’t take the young hockey stars long to figure out what the people of the Red River Valley were all about.
“For [Fargo-Moorhead] to even still host a tournament like that with everything that was going on around them really speaks a lot about the people there,” said U.S. defenseman Cam Fowler.
Before the tournament started, hockey was the last thing on the minds of many in the region. There was too much to do, too much to worry about. But as the river began to recede, the community was ready for something new, something different.
Kevin Schimke of Fargo, who spent his time filling sandbags like the rest of his neighbors, was delighted to have a diversion from the hard work. He didn’t miss any of Team USA’s games at the UP Center.
“It’s the most games I’ve been to in that short amount of time,” Schimke said. “This was a great break after the long flood.”
While stories about the flood continued to dominate the local news, the buzz surrounding the tournament and Team USA in particular began to sweep the area. As the wins kept piling up for the Americans, so did the ticket sales.
When the U.S. met archrival Canada in the semifinals, it seemed that the only thing flooded in Fargo was the Urban Plains Center. A record crowd of 4,906 squeezed into the arena to watch the U.S. come-from-behind to beat the Canadians, 2-1.
“Anytime that you have a crowd behind you like that, you’re basically running off adrenaline,” said Fowler. “The way the crowd exploded after we’d score a goal was unbelievable. I’ve never been in a building that loud.”
Despite the huge win over Canada, the U.S. still had to face another one of its rivals to earn the gold medal. Russia, whom the U.S. had lost to by a 6-5 margin in pool play, was all that stood between Team USA and its fourth U18 title.
Word spread throughout Fargo, and the team became almost like local celebrities. Everywhere the players went, the people of Fargo and Moorhead continually came up to congratulate the young Americans and wish them luck.
With the stage set for a classic gold-medal match-up, the UP Center welcomed a screaming crowd of 4,923, another record.
“You can’t say it doesn’t make a difference,” Fowler said of the vocal support at the UP Center. “With the crowd behind us against Russia, and I can speak for the whole team, it really helped us.”
The tournament couldn’t have ended any other way. For the first time since the 1980 Miracle on Ice, a U.S. hockey team won a gold medal at a world championship on home soil when the U.S. Men’s National Under-18 Team defeated Russia, 5-0.
Similar to, but on a smaller scale than the 1980 gold-medal victory, the U.S. Team’s performance came at a time when fellow Americans needed something to cheer for, something to take their minds off of the stresses of difficult times.
And just like its predecessors, the U18 squad delivered with a gold medal and memories that will last a lifetime in Fargo-Moorhead.