Barrels, Bubbles & U.S. Bonds

The U.S. National Junior Team Saves Its Best For Last As It Captures World Juniors Gold

Spencer Knight stared dejectedly down at the ice before casting a cautious glance in the direction of the U.S. bench to gauge the reaction of his coaches. Despite a decorated career packed with success, the Darien, Conn., native knew what was coming next. After surrendering four goals on just 12 shots, it was time to vacate the crease and call it a night. 

Enter Dustin Wolf, a more than capable backup goalie who would likely be the starter on any team not including a teammate named Spencer Knight. Wolf performed admirably in a mop-up role as he closed the door on Russia and gave his U.S. teammates a chance to claw back to within a goal before losing on the Christmas night opener of the 2021 World Junior Championship.

This being his third trip to the ultimate holiday hockey tournament, Knight knew it's not how you start but how you finish that people remember. And his performance the rest of the way would be etched in hockey fans' memories for years to come.

"You're going to play a lot of great teams and it's such a short tournament; you're not always going to play your best," Knight told a Connecticut newspaper prior to the tournament.

"There'll be times when people or teams make mistakes, and when that happens you can't let it beat you down. You really just have to get back up, forget about it, and keep moving on."

And that's just what they did. One barrel at a time.

Barrel Boys

U.S. head coach Nate Leaman was an assistant on Ron Rolston's staff during the 2007 World Juniors in Sweden when he first heard the story of a group of travelers who were able to cross a treacherous 500-mile swath of the Sahara Desert by strategically positioning oil barrels five kilometers apart to aid in their navigation. 

As the wind blew hard and covered the road in sand, the only way to successfully make the arduous journey across the unforgiving terrain was by taking it "one barrel at a time."

"I shared the story with the guys before the tournament and let them know we're not going to talk about the gold medal. All we're going to talk about is going one barrel at a time," Leaman said. 

"It was just a great image and a great way to get through this tough tournament-to just go one barrel at a time, stay with the process and not get ahead of ourselves."

To signify the journey, the U.S. brought a barrel into the locker room with the logo of the next opponent pasted on the side. After each victory, the team would huddle around the barrel for a quick photo before setting their sights on the next barrel, or in this case their next opponent.

"That's what we wanted the guys to focus on. The next barrel," Leaman said. "We didn't live in the past and we didn't live in the future, we stayed in the present."

After shutting out Canada in the gold-medal game, the barrel made its way out to center ice for a group photo. The hosts were not impressed at the sight of the Canadian logo pasted on the side of what they thought was a trash can. Fortunately, Leaman managed to diffuse the situation by explaining the significance of the barrel to the U.S. quest for gold.

"No disrespect to anyone, especially Canada, who had a great team," Leaman said in a postgame press conference. "I'm sure every team in the tournament had something that they rallied around, and ours was the barrel."

Boys In A Bubble

Just as every team had its rallying cry, they also had to contend with the strict protocols necessary to host an international tournament during a pandemic. 

For the 29 players invited to camp, the journey began on Dec. 7 at USA Hockey Arena in Plymouth, Mich. Normally buzzing with media, fans and youth hockey players sneaking a look at the stars they hope to one day follow, the arena took on an eerie aura of desolation as Michigan continued to deal with lockdown orders from the governor's office. 

To control any spread of the coronavirus, players were tested prior to arriving at camp, and then daily over the course of the next six days. USA Hockey also determined it was best to play it safe and split the team up into four large locker rooms in order to help with social distancing before and after practice. It would be signs of things to come.

Despite taking all necessary precautions, the U.S. medal hopes seemed to take a hit even before the team left for Edmonton when team general manager John Vanbiesbrouck received word that center John Beecher received a positive test for coronavirus. Even though later tests would confirm that test result was a false positive, the IIHF's pre-tournament protocols determined that both he and his roommate Thomas Bordeleau would not be allowed to make the trip north. 

"The players were crushed," Vanbiesbrouck said. "We appealed, did everything we could to understand and disseminate information, talk to our doctor group. This isn't optimal, but we're up against really strict protocols."

The loss of two talented centers created a donut hole in the U.S. plans and forced the staff to alter its initial game plan of carrying 14 forwards and eight defensemen.

As the team would find out upon arriving in Edmonton, other countries were grappling with their own Covid-related issues. 

An A For Zee

A positive Covid test might have been the only thing that would have slowed down Trevor Zegras in Edmonton. 

After dishing out nine assists in last year's tournament, the Anaheim Ducks draft pick was encouraged to shoot more and pass a little less. He took that to heart, notching 18 points in seven games, coming one point shy of tying Doug Weight's single-tournament scoring record set in 1991. 

He did manage to match the record for most points in a U.S. World Junior Championship career, with 27 held by Jordan Schroeder, who appeared in three World Juniors and played in 19 total games. Zegras matched that feat in only 12 games. 

Part of what made Zegras' tournament even more impressive was that he hadn't played in a game all season.

"We have such a great team, it makes my job so easy. I can give it to any of these guys and it'll end up in the back of the net," said Zegras, who became the fourth American to take home the tournament MVP award.

"I love the way we came together in such a short time. It speaks for itself what we did."

Leaman couldn't agree more. Sidestepping the helmets and gloves strewn across the ice as the celebration ensued, it was hard to sum up how far this team had come on its own journey across the desert. Winning this tournament is never easy, and given the sacrifices every member of the team had to make in order to get it done made winning the USA's fifth gold medal in tournament history made it even sweeter this time around. 

"They were really a group that loved each other," he said. "That was the best thing-they loved each other and they played for each other. When you do that great things can happen." 



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