Steven Santini has always dreamed of being an Olympian. At just 18 years old, the Mahopac, N.Y., native hasn’t quite reached that goal yet, but Santini and the rest of the U.S. National Under-18 Team got a taste of what being an Olympian might be like at the 2013 IIHF World Under-18 Championship in Sochi, Russia.
“It was definitely by far the best experience I’ve had in hockey,” said Santini, who played a central role as Team USA took home the silver medal.
The 11-day tournament served as a test run for the 2014 Olympic Winter Games and represented the first official hockey event hosted at the 12,000-seat Bolshoy Ice Dome and 7,000-seat Shayba Arena, home to both men’s and women’s hockey in 2014.
Each game at the tournament was treated as if it were an Olympic event, following Olympic protocol and a full game production that would rival some NHL buildings.
“I thought it was great,” Santini said of the overall experience. “The venues were awesome. Everyone was really nice. I think the Olympics will be awesome there.”
Though falling just short of its gold-medal quest, Team USA navigated a difficult path to the final against Canada, including two games against host Russia.
Both games featured a loud, hostile environment. Even Russian President Vladimir Putin was on hand for the tournament’s opening game between the two rivals. The U.S. dropped the first contest, but took revenge in a thrilling, 4-3, shootout victory in the semifinals that assured the U.S. medal streak reached 10 consecutive years, including four straight gold medals.
“The quality of the teams that we played and all the players – it was such a competitive atmosphere,” said Santini, who was named the tournament’s best defenseman.
After getting a little taste of the Olympics, Santini still clings to the dream of again wearing the USA jersey on the world stage.
“I’ve really enjoyed playing for the United States and I really want to get an opportunity to do it again,” he said. “Ever since I was a little kid, I wanted to play in the Olympics. Hopefully one day I’ll be blessed enough to have that opportunity.”
Following the test run of the Olympic hockey sites, Santini offered a ringing endorsement for the 2014 hosts.
“I think any athlete from any country that has the honor of playing in Sochi will be very satisfied with the facilities and the setup,” he said. “Anyone that goes is going to have a great time, and it will be a memorable Olympics.”