Eight players are back to help the Dubuque Fighting Saints attempt to defend their United States Hockey League title, but that journey will begin in a very unfamiliar environment.
The Fighting Saints, winners of the 2013 Clark Cup, will represent the USHL in the 2013 Junior Club World Cup in Omsk, Russia. The tournament features a junior team from eight countries, including Canada, the United States, Finland, Sweden and Belarus. Dubuque will play three games in four days of group play, starting Sunday against HC Riga of Latvia. If the Saints finish in the top two of a pool that includes Vitkovice Steel of the Czech Republic and the host Omsk Hawks, they will advance in the tournament to play two more games.
Dubuque arrived in Russia on Thursday and lost a 4-1 exhibition contest to CSKA Red Army in Moscow on Friday. Seamus Malone, a returnee from the title-winning squad and a University of Wisconsin commit, had the team's goal.
"I thought we did some good things. I thought it looked like our first game," new general manager and coach Matt Shaw said. "We've got some things that we need to continue to work on. There are a lot of basic 'Hockey 101' things that we can be a lot better on, our puck management and things like that."
Though Shaw admitted his team had to improve in certain areas, he acknowledged Malone's strong play against the Russian club.
"[Malone] is a fun player to watch, because he's a good practice player but he's an even better game player and that's what you want," Shaw said. "He did some good things out there. You could see his creativity, his vision of the ice, his ability to make the plays."
The team had time for a practice Thursday in Moscow, and the players were able to enjoy some sightseeing and a chance to experience Russia's capital city.
"It was definitely different than what we're accustomed to seeing," defenseman Alexx Privitera said. "Older buildings, the buildings aren't as tall, the culture is all different. It was nice to get out and have that experience. You get over here to a different country and you want to experience. You're not just here for hockey. It is a life experience."
The Waterloo Black Hawks represented the USHL in this competition last year. In that tournament, also held in Omsk, the Black Hawks finished second to the Sudbury Wolves of the Ontario Hockey League. Sudbury is back this year and is among the teams in the other group.
For Dubuque, the exhibition loss against CSKA provided some important lessons that could prove valuable in the team's quest to defend their Clark Cup title.
"We just have to start getting our body of work," Shaw said. "Our first game does that, and then we'll have another to start working from because there is a lot of good information to teach from, a lot of good teaching moments in that game. The more we can play now, the quicker our learning curve becomes."