Like most hockey coaches, Keith Allain deals in the here and now. His position doesn’t afford him the opportunity to look beyond the next practice, the next game or the next road trip.
As the head coach of the U.S. National Junior Team, Allain’s focus needed to be even more intense, with a full season’s worth of work crammed into a condensed schedule surrounding one of the most prestigious tournaments on the international schedule.
On those rare occasions when Allain could afford himself a brief mental holiday, he would dream what it would be like to win a gold medal at the 2011 IIHF World Junior Championship.
He envisioned the seconds winding down as the home crowd in Buffalo counted with him. He pictured the sea of Canadian red and white parting as the Stars and Stripes waved wide and high. He felt the weight of a gold medal hanging around his neck. And he could hear his players, locked arm-in-arm across the blue line, singing
The Star-Spangled Banner at the tops of their young lungs.
“I’ve certainly pictured the atmosphere of what it would be like,” said Allain, who was coaching his third U.S. National Junior Team. “That’s part of our driving motivation. I think it would be a pretty special moment.”
The final day of the tournament proved to be everything Allain could have imagined. The only difference was that this time the U.S. squad was not playing for the medal of their dreams.
“It’s hard to win a medal in this event, period,” Allain said. “The competition is tough, and you’re playing a lot of games in a short period of time. If you have a bad night on any given night it’s going to cost you.”
Still, winning the bronze medal, the first of any kind ever won on U.S. soil, could not tarnish the special moment for a special group of American hockey players.
“We had our hearts set on gold,” said Chris Kreider, one of eight returning players from last year’s gold-medal winning team. “But I think every team that comes to this tournament has their hearts set on gold and dreams of winning that gold medal.”
Those hearts were broken two nights earlier. The one slip up Allain referred to came at the worst possible time. The old adage, “you don’t have to win all the games in a tournament, you just have to win the right ones,” turned out to be true once again.
After cruising through the preliminary round with four straight wins and a bye into the semifinals, the U.S. stumbled in prime time with a 4–1 clunker against Canada. The game that everyone wanted to see turned out to be not much of a game as the U.S. came out flat and did little to silence the partisan Canadian crowd that filled the HSBC Arena throughout the 11-day tournament.
“Quite frankly the way we played tonight we didn’t deserve to win,” said Allain, who was on sabbatical from his full-time post as the head coach of Yale University. “One of the great things about hockey is you usually get what you deserve.”
The loss left the Americans at a crossroads. They could mourn the missed opportunity and pack it in, or they could show their pride in the USA crest and rebound against a Swedish team that Allain called the class of the tournament.
The Americans chose the latter, picking themselves up and dusting themselves off to play their best game of the tournament with a poised and passionate effort on their way to a 4–2 victory.
“We were definitely trying to make some kind of a statement,” said Kyle Palmieri, who set up a pair of goals against Sweden. “We didn’t want to be remembered as a team that didn’t show up and win a medal.”
Instead, this U.S. squad will be remembered as the first to win back-to-back medals at a World Juniors, and the first to claim a medal of any sort on home soil.
More important than the medals, the coaching staff was proud of the way their young charges handled the adversity.
“I think mental toughness is one of the most important traits to be successful as a hockey player and as a hockey team,” Allain said.
“This game of ours constantly challenges you, and people who rise to the top and have an opportunity to win a medal are the ones who can handle the down times as well as the up times.
“I think that’s what I’m most proud of with this group is how they responded to not playing well the other night. They came back and had a great start in the game today and were able to push through even after falling behind. That’s what I’ll remember most about this group.”
That’s what the players will remember as well.
“There are things that you’ll remember 20 years down the line, long after your playing days are done,” said Emerson Etem, whose on-ice play helped fans forget his off-ice technical indiscretions. “I’ll always remember being with these guys who battled to win the bronze.”
As they headed back to their respective team, some back to the collegiate ranks and others to their professional clubs, they can take pride in the thought that they didn’t pack it in when times got tough, they played for their coach, they played for each other and, most of all, they played for the crest on the front of their jerseys.
“This could be the last time I wear the USA jersey,” said Jerry D’Amigo, who came up through the USA Hockey ranks as a member of the National Team Development Program.
“I wanted to make a mark while wearing it, and a lot of the guys feel the same way. We played with pride and passion out there. Everything the coach wanted us to do we did. It just shows what we’re made of.”
The sting of losing out on another gold medal will be tempered by the thought that they have done something no other U.S. National Junior Team has done before. They also know they are part of a proud program with a bright future that will compete for many more medals not only at future World Juniors tournaments but at all levels of the game.
“It’s a sign of the depth and breadth of the quality players that USA Hockey is producing that we can be a competitor in this tournament on a year-to-year basis,” Allain said.
“It’s no design that we have players from 12 different states, it’s that we have good players playing from 12 different states who were able to make this team. The future is bright for USA Hockey because of that.”