2016 World Juniors: Finnish Flashback

Returning To The Scene Of Its First World Juniors Victory, U.S. Can’t Repeat Golden Feat But Still Comes Home With A Medal

The Helsinki Ice Hall cafeteria hasn’t changed much since 2004. The arena itself, built in 1966, is the second oldest in Finland and is home of Helsinki IFK of the Finnish league. It holds such an important place in the lives of Helsinkians, who often refer to it as the “ice hall” or “indoor rink,” even after other rinks were built.

The cafeteria was the scene of a raucous celebration involving goaltender Al Montoya and forward Patrick O’Sullivan after the 2004 World Junior Championship final. With gold medals draped around their necks, two of the game’s biggest heroes answered questions after Team USA had rallied from a 3-1 deficit against Canada to claim its first WJC gold.

That 2004 team featured a number of future NHL stars, including Ryan Kesler, Ryan Suter and Zach Parise, who led the team in scoring.

In the 12 years since capturing its first title, Team USA has added to its international resume with gold in 2010 and 2013, and thanks to the strong National Team Development Program, the red, white and blue typically enters the World Juniors as one of the tournament favorites.

It was in the bowels of the old Helsinki Ice Hall that Team USA once again set up camp. This time they were led by 60-year-old veteran coach Ron Wilson, who was returning to the game after a four-year hiatus. As one of the most celebrated coaches in USA Hockey history, Wilson was looking to do the one thing he hadn’t done in hockey yet, which was to coach, and win, at the World Juniors.

“I was happy to get my feet wet the way I did and give something back to USA Hockey, which I certainly think I did,” said Wilson, whose last coaching stint with the Toronto Maple Leafs ended in 2012.

One of the reasons Wilson found coaching the teenagers so energizing was their fresh take on the game, their eagerness to learn and their willingness to adopt a team-first philosophy.

“They’re less selfish,” said the two-time Olympic coach. “When you get to the pros you better learn in a hurry that you’d better take care of number one as much as possible, that’s yourself, but these guys don’t seem to have any of that.

“I didn’t notice any jealousy or anything like that. They seemed to understand the makeup of the team, and I had no problems at all.”

While only a handful of players were even born when Wilson coached Team USA to the World Cup of Hockey victory in 1996, the crafty coach knew how to get the most from this new generation of players.
“He was great. Everybody really liked him,” said Auston Matthews, who lived up to the pre-tournament hype by leading the U.S. in scoring with seven goals and 11 points in seven games.

“He was really laid back and honest with everybody. He doesn’t yell a lot. It was different from what most people kind of expected. It was really nice to have him as a coach.”

Not that Wilson didn’t have to keep his eye out for potential pitfalls. After dispatching their archrival Canada, 4-2, in their first game, the Americans found themselves on the short end of a frustrating 1-0 loss to Sweden, in which they peppered all-tournament goalie Linus Soderstrom with 46 shots.

Left with a day off to regroup before taking on Switzerland, Wilson had a feeling that this had all the makings of a trapdoor type of game for the Americans. Still, it didn’t take long for his young team to put their coach’s mind at ease.

After being frustrated by Swedish goaltender Linus Soderstrom in the preliminary round, the U.S. offensive attack sought revenge with an eight-goal effort in the bronze-medal game.After being frustrated by Swedish goaltender Linus Soderstrom in the preliminary round, the U.S. offensive attack sought revenge with an eight-goal effort in the bronze-medal game.

“I was nervous about the Switzerland game but the team figured it out in the first period, and we ended up winning it 10-1,” Wilson said with a chuckle. “We ended up having a really easy game, and I didn’t expect that. The players don’t know how much of a relief that was for me.”

A dominating victory over the Czech Republic in the quarterfinals put the U.S. in a familiar position of facing Russia, a team that has been a recent roadblock on the Americans’ path to gold. A pair of second-period goals erased the Americans’ early lead, and despite a late flurry they couldn’t find the equalizer.

The bronze-medal game is often called a game between two disappointed teams. It comes down to a test of wills that favors the team that is able to bury its frustration and dig deep with a medal on the line.
This time around it was the Americans who showed heart and a deep bench on their way to an, 8-3, victory.

While they were able to keep Matthews off the score sheet, the Swedes had no answer for Anders Bjork and Ryan Donato, who scored two goals each, or Brock Boeser, who notched his only goal in the tournament.

Matthew Tkachuck, whose father Keith used the 1991 and 1992 tournaments to launch his 18-year NHL career, saw his draft stock rise with an 11-point effort in the tournament, including three in the final game.

And while Wilson wasn’t able to achieve his ultimate goal, he did help the Americans bring home its ninth medal in tournament history. Since 2010, Team USA has won two gold and two bronze.

“I think we had a pretty good tournament. Coming away with a bronze medal is something to be proud of,” said Alex Nedeljkovic, who started all but one game in goal for the U.S.

“We came here to win gold, but I guess bronze is the third best thing. Bronze is a medal you win. We’re happy going home with it. It’s better than going home empty-handed.”

Risto Pakarinen is a freelance writer based in Helsinki.
Issue: 
2016-02

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