Forward Derek Stepan was sold the minute coach Dean Blais established his game plan for the U.S. National Junior Team in the weeks leading up to the 2010 World Junior Championship.
Stepan was captain of the team that would win the country's second WJC gold medal by defeating Canada on home soil, in overtime in the gold-medal game. Stepan said he'll always consider the victory in the title game as one of the greatest accomplishments of his hockey career -- and he credits Blais for much of that success.
Blais-ing a path in North Dakota
U.S. National Junior Team coach Dean Blais enjoys having fun at practice, giving players freedom in the offensive zone and teaching them to play with emotion, confidence and discipline.
It's a good bet Blais will instill these same traits in the players he goes to battle with at the 2012 World Junior Championship in Edmonton and Calgary, which runs Dec. 26 to Jan. 5, 2012.
During his 19 seasons at the University of North Dakota (nine as an assistant, 10 as coach), Blais has produced 60 NHL draft picks, 28 All-Americans, three WCHA players of the year, four WCHA rookies of the year, 40 members of the All-WCHA team and 11 All-WCHA rookie team selections.
One of those Fighting Sioux alums is New Jersey Devils captain Zach Parise, who had 49 goals and 116 points in two seasons playing for Blais.
"What I like about him is he gets his players to play hard … there's no way around it," Parise told NHL.com. "I remember talking to players on opposing teams and how they hated playing against us because Dean makes you play hard. He challenges you, and offensively he lets you be creative when you have the puck. He wants you to make plays and wants you generate offense and really holds players accountable."
During his freshman season at UND, Parise led the NCAA in rookie scoring (61 points) and finished eighth in the national scoring race. He was a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award, becoming the only freshman nominated that year and the first freshman nominee from North Dakota.
"I think the thing that was Dean's biggest trademark was the way he held players accountable," Parise said. "You had to play hard and you had to perform, otherwise you'd hear it from him, good or bad. That's the way it was and I think it worked."
At the same time, Parise said Blais was very approachable.
"I think everyone felt comfortable going to him with a problem off the ice or some other type of issue," Parise said. "I would always feel comfortable walking in and talking to him or just going in and shooting the breeze with him."
New York Rangers forward Derek Stepan, who captained the gold-medal winning U.S. team coached by Blais at the 2010 World Junior Championship, agreed with Parise.
"There were multiple times when he came to us and asked questions and everyone knew how he wanted to coach and us to lead," Stepan said. "We knew exactly how he wanted to go about it. We had meetings with him and he was very honest with us and we were very honest with him. We let him know how the team was feeling that day and what was going on."
-- Mike G. Morreale
It doesn't surprise Stepan that USA Hockey again has turned to Blais to lead the U.S. on Canadian soil at the 2012 WJC, which begins Dec. 26 in Edmonton and Calgary.
"Our biggest strength was the way we were run, and as a team how we came together so quickly," Stepan said. "The guys on the team and the coaching staff fit really well together."
The setup for the 2012 WJC is eerily similar to 2010. The tournament is being held in Western Canada and the U.S. and Canada again will meet in the final preliminary-round matchup on New Year's Eve.
Stepan felt having the opportunity to face Canada prior to the medal round was a key factor in winning the gold-medal game.
"It was important to get a hold of the atmosphere that we were going to be playing in," Stepan said. "We were essentially the visiting team in a barn full of Canadian fans, so it was a really tough atmosphere and they were a good team. It was good to be able to get a feel for them and know how we had to play."
In the first meeting, on Dec. 31, 2009, the U.S. was unable to hold on to a 4-2 lead in the third period and lost 5-4 in overtime. The win gave Canada a bye into the semifinals.
"(Blais) didn't say much after that loss; it was kind of a tough pill to swallow at the time," Stepan said. "I think, as a team, we were pretty banged up just because we had it, and now we were going to have the long road to try and get at it again. We had to beat the Finns (6-2) and Swedes (5-2) to have another shot at Canada. It was a tough loss but (Blais) was very good about moving past it and trying to get us ready for our next game and what was in front of us."
Stepan earned a spot on the 2010 WJC All-Star Team after leading the U.S. with 14 points. He scored four goals and finished with a plus-9 rating. Much like the preliminary-round meeting, the gold-medal contest had the U.S. grabbing a two-goal lead in the third only to see Canada pull even at 5-5 on a pair of Jordan Eberle goals in the final 2:49 of regulation.
"So we lost the lead on New Year's Eve and lost it again in the gold-medal game," Stepan said. "But the fact we went through it earlier was big for us in the gold-medal game. We knew what we had to do, so it was a good process and we were fortunate how we had it laid out for us."
The hero ended up being John Carlson, who scored 4:21 into overtime to snap Canada's five-year reign as champion.
"Dean has that respect factor," Carlson, now a defenseman with the Washington Capitals, told NHL.com. "He's won as a coach before, and whenever you see a veteran coach, I think everyone in the locker room respects everything he says and does."
Stepan said that in addition to the coaching, the camaraderie among the players on the team was second to none. He feels that also went a long way in establishing the confidence the players needed to complete their championship run.
"We had a great group of guys. We got along very well and had fun throughout and that was important," Stepan said. "We hung out with each other every night … it wasn't a dull moment, that's for sure. I talked to some of the guys the following year and it seems they just didn't have the same thing we had, the fun stuff we did."
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