|Cade Fairchild's average build has left him no choice but to think the game better than bigger players do.|
It has been a winning formula for Fairchild, who has used his brains, as well as a solid hockey skill set, to star with the United States National Developmental Team Program and earn a spot with the University of Minnesota program.
The St. Louis Blues liked Fairchild's thinking-man's approach enough to select him in the fourth round of the 2007 Entry Draft.
So it's not surprising that Fairchild already has all the angles figured out when it comes to making Team USA for the 2009 World Junior Championship in December. Despite being just one of eight players returning from the USA team that finished fourth in the 2008 World Junior Championship, Fairchild understands that he is not a lock to be on the team that coach Ron Rolston will bring to Ottawa for the annual U-20 holiday showcase.
Rolston and Team USA brass kicked off the selection process by inviting 53 players -- including the eight under-age members of the 2008 team -- to Lake Placid, N.Y., in early August for a week-long evaluation camp.
With 16 elite-level defenseman on hand, Fairchild knew his resume meant very little to the coaching staff.
"I'm on the same playing field as every other defenseman here," he said at the time. "I'm trying to make the team and prove that I can benefit the team just as much as I hope I did last year. You look around and you look at the roster and there are 16 D here. Every guy could be on the team. You pick any eight guys and I would be confident in saying that would be one of the best D corps in the tournament next year."
But Fairchild does hope that his international experience sways the selectors his way when it comes time to make the final decisions. Not only did Fairchild play in the 2008 World Junior Championship (tallying 1 assist), but he has also played in two U-18 World Championship tournaments, claiming a gold and a silver.
"At the same time, like you said, I have a leg up on them and in a way, I guess I do," Fairchild said. "It's just having experience, which I think is a big thing in this tournament."
Aside from experience, Fairchild also knows Rolston and Team USA brass will be looking for a slightly different team than the one that went over to the Czech Republic last year.
The 2008 tournament was played on Olympic-sized ice sheets in the Czech Republic. The Ottawa tournament -- played at Scotiabank Place and the Ottawa Civic Centre -- will be contested on smaller, NHL-sized surfaces.
As a result, Rolston might want a bigger, more physical team to handle the close-quarter battling that is more dominant in the North American game. In fact, the coach suggested as much during the Lake Placid evaluation camp.
"Obviously, you'll take the best players, but I think this group has some good size and some of the better players are pretty big kids," Rolston said. "In order to be effective in a tournament on a NHL sheet, you have to have guys that are good along the wall, whether it is on the breakout or in the offensive zone and getting to the net and the areas you need to get to."
Such a mindset suggests that Fairchild might be at a disadvantage again, but he has shown during his first year at Minnesota that he can play well on both ice surfaces. Fairchild had 15 points in 40 games – the second-best total among the team's defensemen -- for the Gophers, who play their home games on the big ice. Yet several WCHA teams play on NHL-sized sheets, so Fairchild has extensive experience with both playing surfaces and the styles they encourage.
"I guess I don't really have a preference," Fairchild said. "It's just a totally different game and you have to be able to change your game on any given night. The size of a rink does make a difference, especially for a guy like me, a small defenseman.
"If we're playing on an Olympic sheet, you can't run after guys in the corner because, especially with the Europeans, they are too quick, too shifty and they will make moves on you. On the smaller rink, you can close down their space and eliminate them a little easier."
Fairchild hopes his versatility and experience carry the day for him when the team is selected this winter. He wants to pull a Team USA sweater on again and have the chance to avenge last year's disappointing fourth-place finish, a result that still nibbles at his consciousness a full nine months later.
The Americans were expected to medal, but fell just short by losing to rival Canada in the semifinals and Russia in the bronze-medal game.
"It's something you will never forget, being that close to medals -- and really even the gold medal," Fairchild said. "It still stings to think about.
"I have been a part of USA Hockey for a couple of years now and even my U-18 year we lost to Russia in the gold-medal game and that's one that I will never forget either. It's completely different; but at the same time it's fun. But, looking back on the experience, I wouldn't trade it for anything. Obviously, the result wasn't what we wanted, but at the same time, it was a good learning experience. All you can do is bottle it up and use it for the future."
In other words, make it a learning experience. Well, that should be right up Fairchild's alley.