No miracle workers, but they're close
The 2004 World Junior champs might serve as the foundation of U.S. success for years to come.
HELSINKI, Finland -- It wasn't a miracle on ice, but Team USA's stunning come-from-behind 4-3 victory against Team Canada in the gold-medal showdown at the World Junior Championship ranks high on the nation's list of hockey achievements.
The win, which was similar to the USA's World Cup-clincher over Canada in 1996, cinched America's first World Junior gold medal. In its previous 27 tournament appearances, the United States had earned only one silver and two bronzes.
"It's an unbelievable feeling," said U.S. defenseman Ryan Suter, picked seventh overall by the Predators in 2003. "When they put that gold medal around my neck, I got goose bumps. I was just so happy for everyone."
In a scene reminiscent of the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid, the Americans tossed their sticks and gloves in the air and piled upon one another against the far boards. With equipment littering the ice, the history-making players lined up on their blue line for the medal presentation. Two at a time, the players, coaches and trainers received their golden reward from the IIHF officials.
After the medal ceremony, IIHF president Rene Fasel awarded the championship trophy to captain Mark Stuart (Bruins, 2003). Then, like 1980 "Miracle on Ice" captain Mike Eruzione, Stuart called his teammates to his side as he held the cup over his head. After a group hug, they stood as one -- arms around each other's shoulders -- and watched as "The Star-Spangled Banner" was played and raised to the rafters.
"We were all singing," said center Zach Parise, the Devils' top pick in last year's draft, who was named the tournament's most valuable player by the media. "I don't know how it sounded, but it felt good."
Parise, Stuart and Suter were among the 11 players on the current roster who helped Team USA to its first-ever gold medal at the World Under-18 Championship in May 2002. That winning experience helped the team, Suter said, especially when the Americans were trailing Canada 3-1 after two periods.
"I think we were able to feed off that," Suter said. "Really, with so many guys coming from that team, it didn't take us long to regain the bond we had from that tournament."
This group of young Americans is coming along at just the right time. The United States heads into the 2004 World Cup of Hockey (Aug. 30-Sept. 14) with an aging team. America's top professionals -- such as Mike Modano, Jeremy Roenick, Brian Leetch, Tony Amonte, Doug Weight, Keith Tkachuk, Derian Hatcher, John LeClair and Scott Young -- are in their mid-30s. 2002 Olympic captain Chris Chelios is still skating in his early 40s.
Chris Drury and Mike York headline a much thinner group of players in their mid- to late-20s. If the USA's hockey program is to continue performing at a high level at international competitions such as the Olympics, World Cups and World Championships, there must be an infusion of new blood.
With two gold medals to this group's credit, the powers-that-be at USA Hockey hope this is the new generation of elite players. For now, though, Suter isn't planning too far ahead.
"I don't know how things will go in the future," said Suter, the son of 1980 Olympian Bob Suter and the nephew of longtime NHLer and 2002 Olympian Gary Suter. "We might be [that next generation], or we might not be. I guess time will tell."
Coach Mike Eaves, who also coached the 2002 Under-18 gold medal-winning team, did a masterful job keeping his players focused throughout the tournament. With the tragic death of Herb Brooks in August, Eaves might inherit the role of America's hockey coach.
"Let me worry about that tomorrow," joked Eaves when asked about his international coaching future. "We'll handle that down the line."
Although Eaves might be reluctant to blow his own horn, he's clearly among the top young American coaches. Currently the head coach at the University of Wisconsin, Eaves was an assistant coach with the Flyers in the early '90s as well as a head coach at the AHL level (Hershey) and in the Finnish Elite League. With that experience, and two international gold medals on his résumé, it wouldn't be a stretch to see him behind the U.S. bench at the 2006 Olympics.
In the present, Eaves simply wanted to focus on the accomplishment at hand.
"This wasn't easy," Eaves said. "We just played six world-class games in 11 days. It's draining both physically and emotionally. The young men did a great job. They'll be a band of brothers for the rest of their lives because of the battles they fought through in this tournament. There'll be an immediate connection when they see each other. That's what it's all about."