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Coming home with gold

by Rob Mixer / Columbus Blue Jackets

COLUMBUS, Ohio – Three years ago in Saskatoon, the United States national junior team pulled off one of the most improbable upsets in World Junior Hockey Championship history.

On Canadian soil facing a stacked Canadian team, the Americans withstood a late comeback by the home side and captured a gold medal thanks to John Carlson’s stunning goal in overtime.

And just a few miles from Nationwide Arena, a 16-year-old Sean Kuraly watched it all unfold in his Dublin home. He wasn’t the only young American hockey player to start dreaming that day, but he’s one of the few who were fortunate enough to one day see it through to fruition.

Kuraly was part of another historic U.S. team this past week, winning the gold medal at the 2013 World Junior tournament in Ufa, Russia – a team that faced a must-win game in the preliminary round to even have a chance at medaling. Team USA knocked off the Czech Republic in the quarterfinal, Canada in the semifinal, and rallied from a 1-0 deficit in the gold medal game against Sweden to bring gold back to the U.S. for the second time in three years.

“It was unbelievable,” Kuraly told “Going halfway across the world, we knew we were going there on a mission. It was a business trip. We all came together at the right time and it ended up working out great for us. It was just a really good group of guys that we had.

“To win the World Junior is something I’ll always remember and a memory that I’ll never forget.”

One of the first things to cross Kuraly’s mind after winning the gold medal was the journey that began years ago, traveling around Columbus and The Chiller ice rinks to play minor hockey and try to move up the ladder.

Kuraly had lunch this week with Ed Gingher, head coach and program coordinator of the Ohio AAA Blue Jackets, the local junior club that helped springboard a career that has since included Team USA’s evaluation camp, committing to Miami University, and being selected by the San Jose Sharks in the NHL Draft.

And to think, it all started right here in central Ohio.

“The development I got from Columbus is invaluable,” Kuraly said. “I played my whole minor hockey career here and it’s something they definitely deserve a lot of credit for…it’s been really special.

“I was watching World Juniors in 2010 when (Team USA) won gold, and there wasn’t anyone from Columbus on that team. I was the same, hoping I could be on a team like that. When you see someone that’s going through the same things and did a lot of the same things as you in a lot of the same places with the same people, it gives you hope to be able to do something like that.”

The “something” Kuraly refers to did not come easy for the Americans in Ufa. With their backs against the wall (and knowing a rematch with Canada awaited them in the medal round), their win against the Czechs set the stage for an extremely difficult path to the gold medal.

An emphatic 5-1 win over Canada in the semifinal was perhaps Team USA’s finest moment of the tournament, but for the players, it was simply the next step. Defending champion Sweden had just knocked off the host Russians to advance to a second straight gold medal game, and it could have been an easy trap for coach Phil Housley’s team to fall into.

But as he did all tournament long, Housley kept the club focused on the present. The longtime NHL defenseman was making his debut as Team USA’s bench boss and he seemingly pushed all the right buttons along the way.

“Once we beat Canada, there was no turning back from there – we knew gold was the only option,” Kuraly said. “Beating Canada was great but it didn’t get us a gold medal, so we also had to be ready to beat Sweden. A lot of credit goes to all the guys on the team that stuck with it.

“Coach Housley was unbelievable for us as a team and did a great job bringing us together. He tried to keep it simple for us…what he did was all simple things and that’s what we took on as a team. We’re a team that played fast and hard, and when we did those things and got better each period, that’s what won us a gold medal.”

Kuraly played most of the tournament centering a line with Miami teammate Riley Barber on the right wing, and Montreal Canadiens draft pick (third overall, 2012) Alex Galchenyuk on the left side. The trio was steady and consistent throughout the tournament for the U.S., and Housley never hesitated to put them on the ice in crucial situations.

One of those situations was the opening faceoff in Team USA’s first game of the tournament against Germany. Kuraly won the draw cleanly, and just 19 seconds into the game, scored the opening goal of the World Junior for the Americans and began a two-week ride that they will remember forever.

“This was what we work so hard for as hockey players…to do something like this and win championships,” Kuraly said. “It was an unbelievable experience that’s going to stick with me for the rest of my life.”

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