The Thrill is back.
Phil Housley, who played chunks of his 21-year NHL career with the Winnipeg Jets and Calgary Flames, will be behind the bench for Team USA at the 2013 world junior hockey championship – part of an extreme makeover of the roster following last year’s disappointing seventh-place finish.
Housley, the head coach at Stillwater (Minn.) Area High School, takes over a team with just three returnees – goaltender John Gibson, defenceman Jacob Trouba and forward J.T. Miller, the only U.S. player currently playing professionally (for the New York Rangers’ AHL affiliate, the Connecticut Whale).
“Obviously, we did not have the success we wanted last year, and you hope, in all three of their cases, they learn and grow from it,” Team USA general manager Jim Johansson said on a conference call Tuesday. “You do need leadership in the room and you do hope their participation leads to that.
“The second part of it is, you get the excitement of guys who’ve never played in this championship. That emotion is huge as well. [Portland Winterhawks star defenceman] Seth Jones has not played in the tournament. I can guarantee you he’s going to be excited and ready to go.
“They do understand that it’s a unique opportunity and in many cases, the one opportunity you get.”
The Americans have invited 27 players to a tryout camp in New York and thus will only need to drop four before heading overseas for the tournament in Ufa, Russia, which begins Boxing Day.
Two – Jones and Plymouth Whalers forward Ryan Hartman – are eligible for the 2013 NHL entry draft. Jones is considered a prospect for No.1 overall spot, along with Canadian forward Nathan MacKinnon.
Eight of the 25 American players already drafted belong to Canadian-based NHL teams, including Alex Galchenyuk, who was selected third overall by the Montreal Canadiens last year and currently plays for the Sarnia Sting. Trouba, who went ninth overall to the Jets, is a freshman at the University of Michigan – and having a excellent year, according to Johansson.
The Flames have three prospects on the U.S. team, including goaltender Jon Gillies, an 18-year-old from Providence College (third round, 75th overall last year). But their most interesting, eclectic prospect might be John Gaudreau, a 5-foot-9, 150-pounder who plays at Boston College and was a fourth-rounder two years ago. Gaudreau is tied for third in goals (10) and fourth in points (21) nationally, and is the top scorer among NHL-drafted players in the NCAA.
Gaudreau and Florida Panthers prospect Rocco Grimaldi (5 foot 6, 165 pounds) are two smaller men on what is otherwise a big team.
“There’s speed and skating, but there’s also size and grit,” Johansson said. “You have to combine those two. In the end, this tournament is about playing six or seven games and for us this year, in 10 nights.
“You have to build a team that can, No.1, survive that type of schedule; and secondly, drive at the end to get where we want to get to. And you better be big and strong … because at the end, that’s what you’re going to play against.”
Increasingly, the world junior tournament is starting more closely to resemble the men’s senior championship, with four different winners in the past four years.
The United States won the tournament in 2010, and is capable of doing so again, even with such a young team (10 players born in 1994 on the preliminary roster, all of whom would be eligible to play again in 2014).
“I don’t know how much we looked at the birth year as opposed to: where do guys fit and what do they bring to the table for the team?” Johansson said. “When it’s all said and done, it’s not driven by, ‘Is this an older guy or a younger guy?’ “International experience, that’s just one part of the equation. The bottom line is, they’ve got to get on the ice and perform. They’re all capable. It’s just a matter now of getting them all together, working with the coaches and seeing where they all fit into the team.”
Housley, meanwhile, is a long way removed from the slight, freckle-faced kid who broke into the NHL as an 18-year-old with the Buffalo Sabres in 1982.
Among the coaches who have influenced his career, Housley listed Scott Bowman (who drafted him for the Sabres), Brian Sutter (who coached him in Calgary from 1998-2000), along with Americans Lou Vairo and Herb Brooks.
“There’s a lot of coaches, who you take different pieces from and help shape you as a coach,” Housley said.