- Scott Burnside, NHL
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GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- Hunched over the American bench, Czech Republic players in a writhing joyful mass a few yards away, their sticks and gloves discarded willy-nilly on the ice in the moment of victory, defenseman Jeff Likens lamented not only the loss of a game but also the passing of an era.
"It's tough to take [the Team USA jersey] off. Tough to end it all," Likens said, the day after losing the bronze-medal game of the World Junior Championship, 3-2 in overtime, to the Czechs. "I've been with these guys for years now."
Likens, a University of Wisconsin sophomore and National Team Development Program alumnus, was among 13 members of Team USA who ended their junior national team career with Tuesday's game. But next year's team and all the ones that follow will owe a debt of gratitude to players like Likens who helped the U.S. program evolve to the point where a loss in the bronze-medal game wasn't a mark of accomplishment but a crushing disappointment.
"Yeah, it's going to be really hard. There's always been another game, another tournament," said U.S. forward Patrick O'Sullivan, a Minnesota Wild draft pick.
Two years ago, O'Sullivan was the youngest player on the 2003 U.S. national junior team. This year, he and captain Ryan Suter became the 15th and 16th players in U.S. history to play in their third World Junior Championship and tied for eighth all-time in Team USA history for WJC games played with 20.
"Even getting ready for this game, it was definitely a different feeling," O'Sullivan said. "It's definitely hard to accept that we're done. I'll never get to do this again. You never know it could be the last time you play for your country. It's tough. Especially when you lose your last game in overtime for a medal it's extremely hard to accept."
If there is one player who is the face of the program and its successes it is Suter. His father, Bob, was a member of the 1980 "Miracle on Ice" Olympic team and his uncle Gary, who enjoyed a 17-year NHL career, was a regular member of U.S. national teams. Suter, the first player drafted by an NHL team directly from the U.S. National Team Development Program, would almost certainly have been playing for the Nashville Predators were it not for the NHL lockout.
"I've never really thought about not being able to wear a USA sweater. It hasn't really sunk in yet, but I'm sure it will," Suter said. "For a lot of us, this might be the last time that we get to play for our country and wear the red, white and blue."
Suter has been been wearing his country's colors since 2001, when he participated in USA Hockey's Select 16 Festival. A steady and strong defenseman, Suter went on to become the first member of the NTDP to win two gold medals in one season -- at the 2001 World Under-17 Challenge in Manitoba and the 2002 World Under-18 Championship in Russia the following May. The core of those teams, led by Suter, grew to form the core of last year's gold medal squad.
"Junior year in high school I moved away, and living out on my own, USA Hockey has taken care of me. Definitely it's been a big part of my life," Suter said. "I think USA Hockey has made me who I am today and put me where I am in my career, and in return I think that I've also helped USA Hockey."
Since the World Junior Championship began in 1977, the USA has won only four medals. The Americans began the difficult journey from tournament patsy to a member of the world elite two years ago in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where they finished fourth with a 4-3 record and surprised observers with their level of play. Last year, they earned the country's first World Junior Championship gold medal, capping a perfect record by coming from behind to beat Canada in the final.
Though inconsistency resulted in a fourth-place finish this year, the bar remains high for next year's team, especially with the emergence of top young players like 17-year-old high schoolers Phil Kessel and Brian Lee, and Boston University freshman Chris Bourque, who was lost early in this tournament to a knee injury.
In that sense, USA Hockey officials see the departure of Suter, Likens, O'Sullivan and Co. differently.
"We'll get these guys back in our program at another time down the line. It's now time for them to move on," USA Hockey executive director Doug Palazzari said. "They've been a big part of our program, and they've played wonderfully for us. They got the first gold medal for the program. They'll always have the first gold, no one can take that away from them."
When told Suter said it was going to be difficult to give up his jersey, Palazzari laughed.
"Remind him he's going to get called again," Palazzari said, noting there will always be international events in which Suter and his peers might find themselves involved.
In fact, given the lack of depth along the Team USA blue line at the NHL level, it's entirely possible Suter will be wearing the red, white and blue at next year's Olympic Games in Torino, Italy.
Waiting to check in for a flight back to Madison, Wis., where he'll resume his sophomore season at the University of Wisconsin, Likens said he'll be watching the tournament next year and likely for years to come, supporting the team but wishing he was playing.
"Everybody's proud to have been part of that (winning gold), to be part of the guys that raised the bar, raised the level for everybody," he said.
Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.
8dScott Burnside and Craig Custance