A Perfect 10

A Decade Removed From Victory, The 2004 U.S. World Junior Team Still Has Fond Memories Of Its Historic Achievement
By: 
Carly Peters

The victory by the U.S. National Junior Team at the 2004 IIHF World Junior Championship set the table for the 2010 and 2013 U.S. squads to bring home the gold.The victory by the U.S. National Junior Team at the 2004 IIHF World Junior Championship set the table for the 2010 and 2013 U.S. squads to bring home the gold.

Like a birthday or anniversary, the date rolls around every year and brings a smile to Al Montoya’s face. Even a decade after leading the U.S. National Junior Team to its first gold medal at the 2004 IIHF World Junior Championship, it remains the crowning jewel in the Chicago native’s career.

“It’s definitely special every year it comes around and you remember it,” says Montoya, whose latest stop on his hockey odyssey has landed him in Florida. 

No doubt, Jan. 5, 2004 will live on in the hearts and minds of the members of the U.S. National Junior Team. It was the day that Team USA fought back from a two-goal deficit against the heavily-favored Canadians to capture its first-ever gold medal at the IIHF World Junior Championship in Helsinki, Finland. 

This January marks the 10-year anniversary of that historic achievement, one of the most important victories in the history of USA Hockey. The victory, in particular the game’s improbable third period comeback capped by Patrick O’Sullivan’s second goal of the game, will forever be remembered as a turning point for USA Hockey. 

“You know, I can remember that whole, entire day,” O’Sullivan says of the day he helped make history. “From the moment that I woke up, right up until we went to bed that night, it was a pretty special day.”

Since the first tournament was held in 1977, the World Juniors has long been a showcase for the next wave of international hockey talent. But here in the U.S., it has long been viewed as the greatest hockey tournament most Americans have never heard of. That began to change a decade ago on a frozen sheet of ice in Finland when a group of 22 American teenagers carved their names in history and set the table for future generations of talented young Americans. 

“Now we expect to win,” says Montoya, who played every minute in goal for the U.S. squad. “Before, maybe it was good to place here or there, but now, we expect to be on top.”

Following in those skate tracks, the U.S. has added to its trophy case, winning gold in 2010 and 2013, and bronze in 2007 and 2011.

Along with that confidence, this core group of players had history on their side. Many grew up playing with and against each other, and have enjoyed success on the international stage. They cut their teeth in USA Hockey Player Development Camps and Select Festivals, honed their crafts as members of the National Team Development Program and were on the first U.S. team to win gold at the IIHF World Under-18 Championship. Simply put, most of Team USA had familiarity playing together and winning.

Baby-faced Ryan Kesler and David Booth share in the spoils of victory after the U.S. Junior National Team claims its first World Junior Championship title in 2004.Baby-faced Ryan Kesler and David Booth share in the spoils of victory after the U.S. Junior National Team claims its first World Junior Championship title in 2004.

The chemistry was just as strong off of the ice. The friendships formed during those formative years are still strong today. Even as they play for opposing teams, the players know they will forever be tied by history and share a strong bond.

“We all just gelled; we were all friends,” says Minnesota Wild defenseman Ryan Suter. “I think that might be the best part about it all. We were all so close.”

That closeness allowed players to check their egos at the door and buy into the system put in place by head coach Mike Eaves, with the help of assistant coaches John Hynes and Ken Martel. 

From puck-rushing defensemen such as Matt Carle to fourth-line energy players like David Booth and Jake Dowell, the strength of the U.S. squad was that every player understood and accepted their role on the team.

“It wasn’t a one-man show or two guys did all the work,” Suter recalls. “Everybody on the team pulled their weight.”

As the first U.S. squad to stand atop the World Juniors podium, they have set the bar high for future teams, including this year’s team that will compete at the 2015 World Juniors in Montreal and Toronto starting on Dec. 26.

In the years since, U.S. Team members have gone on to become some of the biggest stars in the NHL while others have made their mark in the AHL or playing overseas.

“It kind of put USA Hockey on the map with international competition at that age because it had never been done before and, I think, a big step for USA Hockey in that tournament,” Suter says.

Even with their continued success at the pro level, most view the World Juniors win as the greatest accomplishment of their careers. Everyone involved with the team still holds such vivid, emotional memories that they cannot believe that 10 years have passed since they stood atop the podium.

“Time has passed quickly, but in remembering that journey with those young men, whenever you win a championship of that magnitude, it is something very special,” says Eaves, who adds that the accomplishment was made even more meaningful because he did it with his son, Patrick. 

“The fact that we made the analogy that we were trying to get to the top of a mountain and we were able to do that and stick our country’s flag in the top of that mountain is something very special.”

Issue: 
2014-12

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