2013 WJC: Team USA takes gold after finding stride in playoff round

UFA, Russia — One year ago in Calgary, Jim Johannson was standing in the media area trying to explain what went so terribly wrong. As the man in charge of hockey operations for USA Hockey, he was there to answer for his team’s seventh-place finish.

He said their program would go back to the drawing board and reassess every detail in building a team.

They did.

On Saturday, in Ufa, Russia, Johannson was once again standing in the media area, but this time he was surrounded by his American players wearing gold medals around their necks. They had just beaten the defending champions from Sweden 3-1 to win their first world junior tournament since 2010.

“It’s a tough tournament,” said Johannson. “Things happen in the tournament, some things you can control and some you can’t. I think in the end it comes down to getting key performances from players and the coaches along with just having some good fortune mixed with good performance.”

Among those who stood out for the Americans were goaltender John Gibson, who was named the tournament’s most valuable player. He led the tournament with a 1.36 goals-against average and a .955 save percentage. It’s a far cry from his play in Calgary where he played one game, a disastrous 4-1 loss to Finland, which started the U.S. on their skid to seventh.

“In the end you need performance,” said Johannson. “Last year we had some guys who needed to perform and they didn’t have the tournament that they wanted. Obviously we had a lot of guys who had the tournament that they wanted today.”

In addition to Gibson, defencemen Jacob Trouba and Jake McCabe were also named tournament all-stars. Fellow blueliner Seth Jones, the top defence prospect for the 2013 NHL draft, also bolstered his stock with solid play in the playoff rounds for the Americans. The U.S. defence corps did a great job of putting pressure on the Swedish forwards to create turnovers.

Jones said that it was their solid play against Canada in the semifinal that gave them the confidence they needed to win gold. Team USA beat Canada handily 5-1, sending the Canucks to the bronze medal match.

“It did a lot,” said the 18-year-old Jones. “We played a great game against Canada and that kind of helped us as a team a lot. People played their own roles on the team and it worked out for us in the long run.”

In the long run, there’s no telling how helpful this title will be to advance the growth of hockey in America – particularly in what many consider “non-traditional” markets. Jones, the son of former NBA star and current Brooklyn Nets assistant coach Popeye Jones, is one of those success stories.

“Hockey is becoming a lot bigger in the U.S.,” said Jones, who grew up in Plano, Texas, but started playing hockey in Colorado. “We have a lot of kids who are coming out of California and Texas, like myself, and a lot of places that you wouldn’t expect hockey to be. USA Hockey is doing a great job of promoting it.”

Johannson, like many others, believes the NHL’s expansion into U.S. markets like Texas, California and Florida, has helped boost the sport with kids who might never had thought about putting on a pair of skates.

“There’s a kid like Seth Jones who lived in both Colorado and Texas and all of a sudden he’s playing hockey,” said Johannson. “To have the expansion of the NHL in those areas, it’s attracted more athletes, more facilities and it’s led to more kids playing hockey. When you get the special (players) you embrace it and you’re really appreciative of it, but it’s also good for our game and our country.”

But it’s not just the NHL markets that have been thriving. USA Hockey is continuing to grow the sport at the grass-roots level with initiatives like “Try Hockey For Free Day” where kids aged 4 to 9 can lace-up the skates at local rinks across the U.S. and give hockey a try. More than 10,000 kids participated in 454 rinks across 47 states in 2012.

“It’s been great,” said Johannson. “I think two-fold. I think the exposure to the game and being able to have a much wider audience in how we deliver that message to kids out there and quite honestly the funding from the National Hockey League helps us have more staff working on growing the game.”

Jones said he first wanted to play hockey after seeing the Colorado Avalanche win the Stanley Cup.

Now, said Jones, it might be watching the Americans win a world junior championship that plants the idea of playing hockey in other youngsters.

“Anytime you can persuade a kid to pursue a sport or pursue a dream, that’s an unbelievable thing.”

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