Patrick O’Sullivan pauses as a wave of memories rush back into the forefront of his mind. Then he lets out a laugh that bubbles up from deep within his soul.
“You know, I can remember that whole, entire day,” O’Sullivan says as he recalls 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.”
No doubt, Jan. 5, 2004 will always be an extraordinary day in the hearts and minds of members of the U.S. National Junior Team, as well as hockey fans across America.
It was the day that Team USA fought back from a two-goal deficit against Canada to capture its first-ever gold medal at the IIHF World U20 Championship in Helsinki, Finland.
This January marks the five-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 O’Sullivan’s second goal of the game, will forever be remembered as a turning point for USA Hockey.
The World Junior Championship, as it is more commonly known, has always been a showcase for the new stock of American hockey talent as well as the rise of USA Hockey development programs. But for this particular team, the tournament served as a harbinger of things to come.
“Now we expect to win,” says goaltender Al 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.”
Along with that confidence, this core group of players has history on its 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.
The chemistry was just as strong off the ice. The friendships gained 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 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 his role on the team.
“It wasn’t a one-man show or two guys did all the work,” says Suter. “Everybody on the team pulled their weight.”
And they did so from the very beginning. Team USA went undefeated in its first five games, outscoring opponents by a combined score of 23-5. On the other side of the bracket, a powerful Canadian team that included future NHL stars Sidney Crosby, Marc Andre Fleury, Ryan Getzlaf and Dion Phaneuf was on a similar search and destroy mission.
When Team USA found itself in a 3-1 hole at the second intermission, skeptics felt that the Americans had met their match. But inside the locker room, every U.S. player and coach still believed a reversal of fortune was in the air.
“We knew the level we could play and had not played our best hockey,” says Eaves. “We went out [and did so].”
Canada opened the third period with a bevy of shots, but Montoya made some magnificent saves that turned the tide for the U.S. The U.S. kept Canada under pressure and quickly notched two goals to tie the game. O’Sullivan scored the game winner by applying forechecking pressure, causing Fleury to clear the puck off his teammate’s back and into Canada’s net. Excitement soon spread across the U.S. bench and turned to jubilation as the final buzzer sounded.
“It was really emotional,” recalls O’Sullivan. “We realized as a team how much it meant, not only to the guys on that team, but everyone else who had ever represented their country.”
As the only U.S. squad to stand atop the World Juniors podium, they set the bar high for future teams, including this year’s team that will compete at the 2009 World Juniors in Ottawa, Ontario starting on Dec. 26.
“When you think – oh man, we’re the first U.S. team to ever do it – then you start to appreciate it more,” says Zach Parise, who tied for the lead in tournament scoring and earned Most Valuable Player honors.
“It’s hard to believe, especially with all of the great players that have gone through the system,” says Montoya. “The fact that we were the first team to be able to get that gold medal is something special.”
In the years since, U.S. Team members have gone on to become some of the brightest young stars in the NHL while others are climbing through the ranks in the AHL or playing overseas.
Even with their continued hockey success, most view the World Juniors win as the greatest accomplishment of their careers. Most players still hold such vivid, emotional memories that they cannot believe how quickly time has passed.
“Maybe it’s because the memories of winning are so fresh in our minds, but it doesn’t seem like it’s already been five years,” says Parise.
“I don’t know if I’ve really realized how big it is yet, even, “ adds Suter. “It’s still kind of sinking in.”
Carly Peters is the 2008-09 Brian Fishman Intern.