Common Thread

Hlinka Alumni Bring International Experience To World Junior A Challenge

Josh Nodler had been here before. Just a few months earlier, the forward from Oak Park, Mich., found himself in a similar position of coming together with a group of unfamiliar teammates as they prepared to take on a familiar foe.


Nodler represented the U.S. in the 2018 Hlinka Gretzky Cup in Red Deer, Alberta along with three other players currently representing the United States on the international stage. With the sting of a disappointing finish still fresh in their minds, these four were once again donning the red, white and blue at the World Jr. A Challenge in Bonnyville, a small Alberta town with a population doesn’t peek over 6,000 people.


Bonnyville sits 250 northeast of Red Deer, where the U.S. experienced one of its toughest losses in recent memory when it saw victory snatched from its clutches on a late goal by the Canadians, which seemed to enter the U.S. net after time expired. With no video replay to reverse the call, the Americans lost a heartbreaker and finished fourth in the tournament.


Nodler led the Americans with seven points, while forwards Robert Mastrosimone and Grant Silanoff, along with defenseman Mitchell Miller also enjoyed standout performances at the Hlinka.


Now these four, along with forward Connor Caponi and goaltender Isaiah Saville, who played in the 2017 Hlinka tournament, are training their focus on retribution at the World Junior A Challenge, which kicked off on Sunday. 


It’s a tournament the U.S. has done well in historically, securing a first-place finish in four of the past six years. It showcases just how strong the talent level is in the United States Hockey League, which supplies every player on the 22-man roster.

 16-year-old defenseman Mitchell Miller had five points in the Hlinka Gretzky Cup. The Cedar Rapids Roughriders product is now looking to help lead the U.S. to a first place finish in the World Junior A Challenge.16-year-old defenseman Mitchell Miller had five points in the Hlinka Gretzky Cup. The Cedar Rapids Roughriders product is now looking to help lead the U.S. to a first place finish in the World Junior A Challenge.

One of the keys to helping replicate that success is coming together quickly as a team. In a short tournament, cohesiveness as a group is pivotal, with the importance not getting lost on Nodler.


“I think one of the biggest things in tournaments like this, it’s how well you come together as a team,” Nodler said. “It’s difficult in such a short amount of time.”


However, the Hlinka experience should help ease the adjustment of coming together as a group on the fly. They will look to help the 12 players who made their international debuts during Sunday’s 2-1 shootout loss against Canada West in the tournament opener.


“Being at Hlinka, it helps being able to do that, making it a little bit better and a little bit smoother,” Nodler said. “It definitely helps. It’s one of the biggest things that we come together as a team, start bonding quickly and start becoming friends with the guys. I think that’s a good way to have success in this tournament.”


Nodler wasn’t the only player who believes his experience at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup should help lead to an increased likelihood of success in Bonnyville. It’s already served as a confidence boost to each player’s respective campaigns in the USHL.


“At the Hlinka, we were playing teams like Canada and Finland, who are obviously top-notch teams,” Silanoff said. “Just playing at that pace, getting ready, playing some highly competitive hockey that for sure helped me get ready for next season in the USHL.”


Tasked with piecing the team together was USA Hockey’s director of junior hockey Marc Boxer, who is serving as the general manager of the team. Working together with several others, Boxer said group the selection process commences the summer and continues on through the early part of the USHL season. 


(To listen to our most recent podcast with Marc Boxer, click here.)


“When you see a kid play in the Hlinka, I think that in itself bolsters their confidence,” Boxer said. “When they have success at the event, which all these kids did, especially as a team and as individuals. Then they make a step into the USHL, they’re already at another level.


“The USHL is a really hard league to play in to begin with, because it’s a really good league with a lot of good players. For young guys to come in and make an impact, nightly, make an impact every shift, that’s what you look for.”


While the Hlinka has historically featured many of the best and brightest from the upcoming draft class, Boxer noted how the World Junior A Challenge is chance for late-bloomers to showcase their skills. 


Among the leaders on the U.S. squad are Matt Brown, who burst onto the scene this season and is among one of the leading scorers in the league, with 28 points as a member of the Des Moines Buccaneers. 

He is joined by Bobby Brink, a forward with the Sioux City Musketeers, who leads the USHL with 33 points. Both players are hoping that a strong performance in Bonneyville will vault them into the day one conversation heading into the upcoming NHL Draft.


 Bobby Brink, a native of Excelsior, Minn., is currently leading the USHL in points with 33.Bobby Brink, a native of Excelsior, Minn., is currently leading the USHL in points with 33.

It’s a skillful and determined group, one that has left an impression on Nodler from the first practice to an exhibition win over Canada East on Friday, 3-1.


“I’m super impressed with the way we’ve practiced. We’re moving the puck fast, communicating well and executing the drills at a high pace,” Nodler said. 


“Even the lines on day one were all playing well together and having fun. I think it’s kind of unique to come together like that. We have a really good team and I’m really excited for this group.”


The U.S. has high expectations after consistently racking up podium finishes over the last decade. With so much riding on this tournament, from representing their country to improving their prospects leading up to the 2019 NHL Draft, every player is determined to bring their A game.


“I’m super excited for the World Jr. A Challenge,” Silanoff said. “Obviously it’s a huge honor to be selected for it and represent our country the best we can. Our team is going to do the best that we can with it.”

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