The Road To Gold
Dec. 27, 2009
Dec. 29, 2009
Dec. 31, 2009
Jan. 2, 2010
Jan. 3, 2010
Jan. 5, 2010
Less than a week before his 18th birthday, U.S. National Junior Team goaltender Jack Campbell entered the gold-medal game tied 3-3 in the second period. He was greeted by 15,000 Canadian fans trying to break his concentration by repeatedly chanting his name at the 2010 IIHF World Junior Championship in Saskatoon, Sask.
In the end, the crowd and Team Canada couldn’t break Campbell, who turned aside a scoring chance in overtime before John Carlson ripped in a goal for the 6-5 victory that gave USA Hockey its first gold medal in the event since 2004.
Campbell was one of two 17-year-olds playing for Team USA. The other was Jason Zucker, and Team USA coaches and staff said special qualities in each player made it easier to bring them to a tournament dominated by 18- and 19-year-olds.
“There’s no question that to play up from Under-18 to this event, they have to have good maturity because it’s a big jump,” said Scott Monaghan, director of operations at the U.S. National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, Mich.
Calling up young players to teams at various levels is not uncommon for Team USA. Players such as Erik Johnson, Phil Kessel, James van Riemsdyk and Jordan Schroeder all competed against older players at various tournaments.
“Those guys all had some of the same qualities, but it started with maturity,” Monaghan said.
It also helps if they are special players with skills beyond their years.
“Phil Kessel came young because of his scoring. Jordan Schroeder came young because of his overall versatility,” said Jim Johannson, USA Hockey’s Assistant Executive Director of Hockey Operations.
U.S. National Junior Teams At World
Then there are times when Team USA will groom a player for future success by inviting him to an event a little early to give him experience. For example, at an IIHF Men’s World Championship in Latvia, the U.S. brought Kessel along to expose him to the professional players while he was still in college.
“We said let’s bring [Kessel] over to get him experience around pros and by the end of the tournament he was on the top line,” Johannson said. “A good experience turned into a key part of our team.”
When Team USA decided to bring Zucker and Campbell to Saskatoon, they saw different things in each player that gave them the confidence to trust the 17-year-olds.
“Seeing how well [Zucker] did at the Under-18 World Championships [in 2009] gave me the confidence that he could [play on the Junior team],” Monaghan said. “When you see a guy that can make that jump already, it gives you confidence that he can make the next one.”
Both Johannson and Monaghan said Zucker’s speed and versatility were desirable attributes. The team could plug him in anywhere in the lineup and expect success.
Campbell played with Zucker at the IIHF Under-18 World Championship in Fargo, N.D., and was also a year younger than typical goalies in that event. He played late in the tournament and ended up leading Team USA to gold by surrendering only one even strength goal, including a shutout in the gold-medal game.
That performance was exactly what USA Hockey wanted for the young goaltender, and by the time he was picked for the U.S. National Junior Team this year, he already had an impressive resume.
“He had as much or more experience than other guys even though he was young,” Johannson said.
“We had to bring the best guys to help us win, and we think Jack was one of the best guys to help us win.”
Johannson added that all the planning and analysis can only do so much and that ultimately everything comes down to what the players do.
Zucker and Campbell said they weren’t afraid to play ahead a year at the World Juniors, but noticed some differences when they took the ice for the first time.
“The first game was a little nerve wracking,” said Zucker, who scored a pair of goals in seven games. “The game is faster.”
Campbell said he welcomed the challenge of facing better competition, but admitted the speed of the game and the talent was impressive.
“Playing in the tournament is kind of surreal,” said the Port Huron, Mich., native whose only blemish was a shootout loss to Canada on New Year’s Eve. “It’s clearly a step up from any level I’ve played.”
Jason Zucker chases after a loose puck.
Campbell said having a teammate with him who had played early at the Under-18 World Championship made things easier at the World Junior Championship.
“Having a guy like Jason on the same team is huge because we have the same types of goals,” Campbell said.
Both youngsters had a veteran they could look up to who went through the same emotions when he was 17 years old. Schroeder, who was playing in his third World Juniors, said he knew what his teammates were going through in their first year at the event.
“I remember the first time I made it, and I’ve never been happier in my life,” said Schroeder, who eclipsed Jeremy Roenick’s all-time American scoring mark during the tournament. “Being the young guy you didn’t have the most confidence out there but as the tournament goes on you get more confidence in your teammates and things work out.”
Playing early and succeeding increases a player’s chances for multiple tournaments. Schroeder played in three and said the exposure to the tournament gave him confidence when he came back to the National Junior Evaluation Camp the next two years.
“You kind of expect to be on the team every year but there are some players who make it one year and not the next,” said the Prior Lake, Minn., native. “After I made it that first year I had a little confidence the next time.”
Zucker said he has thought about the possibility of returning to the U.S. National Junior Team, but knows how much can change from year to year. The important thing, Zucker added, is to take the experience and use it to grow.
“As of now I have a chance of playing three just like Jordan,” said the Las Vegas native. “I’ll try to get through this tournament and then see what happens next year.”
Cameron Eickmeyer is the managing editor of USAHockey.com.