The Great Outdoors

U.S. Junior Team Faces The Elements And Its Biggest Rival As It Looks To Make History In Buffalo

Bob Motzko walked down the tunnel and into the frozen expanse at New Era Stadium. As he reached the lip of the rink, he slowly slipped off his skate guards and took a solitary lap around the pristine sheet of ice. It was one of those “wow” moments that television doesn’t do justice while watching other outdoor games from the comfort of his St. Cloud, Minn., living room.

As the head coach of the U.S. National Junior Team, Motzko reveled in the frozen moment before being joined by his players as they prepared to take on Canada on Friday in the first outdoor game in the 40-year history of the World Junior Championship.

“You step out there in an NFL stadium with a hockey rink sitting there, it is pretty cool,” said the man looking to lead the U.S. to back-to-back titles and their first on home ice. 

With one win already under their belt (a 9-0 whitewashing of Denmark) and a trapdoor game against Slovakia staring them in the face on Thursday, the U.S. players are excited to take on their biggest rivals on the biggest stage in international hockey. If the magnitude of the moment is pressing down on them, it was hard to tell as they posed for photos with family members and each other as practice wound down.

“They were acting like kids again. We all were. It was fun to be out there,” Motzko said. “You can tell it’s going to be a great environment.”

After spending two weeks going from the practice rink to the hotel, first in Columbus, Ohio and now in Buffalo, spending the day in the great outdoors at the home of the NFL’s Buffalo Bills was a welcome reprieve for coaches and players alike.

“I thought today was a great afternoon to just step away,” Motzko said. “You have to do that when you’re in a hotel for 15 days. I thought this was a quick diversion for us.”

And his players couldn’t agree more. Sporting black eye patches with “Bills Mafia” written on them, Max Jones tried to take it all in before joining friends and family for photos at center ice. 

“Have you ever seen the movie, ‘Mystery Alaska?’ That’s what I was thinking about,” said the Rochester, Mich., native. “Just skating around out there was kind of a cool experience for me. I’ve never been a part of something like this or played a hockey game outside, especially in a big stadium like this. It’s something I’m definitely looking forward to.”

With nine Minnesotans on this year’s roster, skating outdoors is as second nature as breathing for those from the State of Hockey. For Casey Mittelstadt, who thrilled the local crowd in the opener with a pair of goals, hitting the ice brought back memories of last year’s Class AA high school game when his Eden Prairie Eagles beat the Stillwater Ponies outdoors at Lowell Park as part of Hockey Day in Minnesota festivities.

“It was one of my favorite games that I’ve ever played in,” said the Sabres top pick in last year’s draft. “It was honestly a perfect day and a perfect atmosphere.”

With the weather playing a hand in the atmosphere on Friday, players don’t want to get too caught up in elements that are out of their control. And that includes the ice, which drew high marks, or the crowd estimated to reach 40,000 by the time the puck drops in the late afternoon.

“You have to be ready for anything. It could be snowing, it could be windy,” said Kieffer Bellows, one of seven players returning from last year’s gold-medal squad. “You just have to push away the crowd and focus on the business at hand. Obviously, with a crowd like this we want to use it to our advantage. The main focus is the five guys on the ice and the goalie.”

Motzko would expect nothing less. After all, his team will be facing their North American rivals with first place in Group A potentially hanging in the balance. 

“There are certain games that come through that you don’t have to say a word to your players. This is one of them,” he said. 

 

“You walk in the locker room and there’s a little different feel. It’s amped up. That’s what rivalries are all about. There’s just a little juice in the air. You can feel it.”

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