"I think we're the best team," United States defenseman Seth Jones told TSN entering the IIHF 2013 World Junior Championship in Ufa, Russia. "I think we have all the pieces to win the gold medal."
Two weeks later, Jones had a gold medal draped around his neck, closing a remarkable amateur career with wins at world under-17, under-18, and under-20 tournaments. And he won those last two world titles with a group of familiar teammates that had been working together for much of the past three years. For that group of American prospects, their three-year odyssey yielded incredible results.
Roughly half the players who won gold in Ufa also played on the U.S. team that won the 2011 World Under-18 Championship in Germany. From that group, seven players -- including John Gibson, Jake McCabe, Rocco Grimaldi and J.T. Miller -- were members of the 2010 U-17 championship team. It's a winning core that first came together as 16-year-olds at the United States National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, Mich.
"There's a lot of character in that group. A special group," Ron Rolston, coach of the Rochester Americans of the American Hockey League, who previously served as coach of those U-18 and U-17 championship teams. "[There is] a lot of grit and resolve in that group and a lot of different elements in terms of both skill and grit."
Anyone trying to discover how the American team discovered its championship chemistry in Ufa need look no further than that team that won the 2011 U-18 tournament. The turning point for that group came when a pair of under-age defensemen, Jacob Trouba and Jones, got called up.
"Connor Murphy was hurt and Jake McCabe had a cracked vertebra, so we were short on defensemen. So we had to bring them up from the under-17 team," Chadd Cassidy, Rolston's assistant with the Americans and USA Hockey, said. "We knew we had something very special in Seth and Jacob. We could see at that point that they were really special players. They both played on the power play for us in the worlds. They took on big roles for us."
Playing in the World U-18 tournament as a 16-year-old isn't unusual. But the prominent role Jones and Trouba earned in 2011 established them among the world's top hockey prospects. Two years later in Ufa, Trouba was named the tournament's best defenseman while Jones completed a sparkling run that saw him win every international tournament in which he competed.
But the group's development was by no means just a series of successive world championships. Known as "the 93s" for their birth year, the squad was among the first that USA Hockey allowed to play in exhibition games against college and United States Hockey League teams. That variety of competition accelerated the group's development, but at times made for some humbling losses.
"That '93 group had a really challenging two years in the program. Outside of international play, that team had a lot of bumps and bruises," Cassidy said. "There were a lot of long nights. These kids never gave up. It didn't matter what the score was. They had their hard hats on and were ready to work."
Whether it was gold in international competition or a hard-fought game against a college team, the stabilizing force all along was Gibson, the goaltender. Since joining the USNTDP in 2009, Gibson has carved a remarkable international resume that started with gold at the 2010 U-17 tournament, where he was named the United States' top player in the championship game.
A year later at the U-18 worlds, Gibson posted a 38-save performance in a semifinal win against Canada and was named the tournament's best goaltender. It culminated earlier this month in Ufa, where the Ducks prospect led the gold-medal charge and was named the tournament's best goaltender and most valuable player.
"If you're going to win, you start from the net out. He's one of those guys that you can build that championship around," Rolston said. "He [Gibson] was a physical specimen. He was one of our biggest players, both in stature and body composition. He was just a rock back there."
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