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1986 WJC team set U.S. standard

by Adam Kimelman

"We knew we had something to play for and that was something that in years past, I don't know if there was ever a chance. We were on top of our game. I think guys were doing whatever they could to see if they could pull out a win."
-- Eric Weinrich

The World Junior Championship has become one of the benchmark events on the international hockey calendar, gathering the best under-20 hockey players from around the world for elite tournament.

Prior to the 1986 event, however, the United States never finished higher than fifth, including sixth-place finishes in 1984 and '85.

So when the team gathered in Detroit for a Christmas Eve dinner prior to moving to Hamilton, Ontario, for the tournament, General Manager Art Berglund made an impassioned speech.

"Art got us all riled up, fired up on the fact that no junior team had ever won a medal," recalled Greg Dornbach, a forward on the team. "I remember guys like Craig Janney and Steve Leach and Brian Leetch and Mike Richter and Scott Young, just sitting around with those guys … and saying (a medal) would be pretty cool at that part of our careers."

The 1986 World Junior Championship turned out to be the coolest, as the U.S. team routed Sweden 5-1 in its final game to take home the bronze medal. It was the first time a U.S. team had taken home a medal of any kind from an international tournament since the 1980 men's Olympic team won gold.

"We wore the medals around our necks on the flight home," said Tom Chorske, a forward on that team who went on to win the 1995 Stanley Cup with the New Jersey Devils. "It wasn't a gold, but it was a medal."

The 2009 World Juniors will be held in Ottawa from Dec. 26-Jan. 5, the first time it's been in Ontario since the 1986 WJC was held in Hamilton.

That '86 team was a coming-out party for a number of players who would go on to long, successful NHL careers. Leetch and Richter starred with the New York Rangers and were inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame earlier this year. Defenseman Eric Weinrich and forwards Young and Paul Ranheim each played more than 1,000 NHL games. Jimmy Carson, the second pick of the 1986 Entry Draft, was a two-time 100-point scorer, but might best be remembered for being traded to Edmonton as part of the Wayne Gretzky deal in 1988. Janney was regarded as one of the game's better passers of the late 1980s and early '90s.

"The expectation was always to win a medal," Berglund said. "In those days we knew we had a strong group of players coming up at that time, led by Leetch, Janney, Richter. Most of those guys went on to the NHL. We knew a medal was obtainable."

It didn't look so close in their opener, a 7-3 loss to the Soviet Union, but they followed that with an impressive 5-2 defeat of Czechoslovakia a day later.

After a pair of losses -- 5-2 to the host Canadians and 7-5 to Finland -- a pair of wins against West Germany (4-1) and Switzerland (11-3) put the U.S. team in medal contention. Unlike the current tournament format, the 1986 WJC was a round-robin tournament, with the teams with the three best records taking home medals.

Going into the last day of the tournament Sweden was 4-2, while the Czechs and the U.S. team each were 3-3. The U.S. team owned the tie-breaker over the Czechs by virtue of their previous win, so beating the Swedes and finishing 4-3 would give the U.S. team the bronze.

"We felt like underdogs because of the history," said Chorske. "The team had never won. I think between the second and third period, we were in the game enough that the coaches were positive and energetic and enthusiastic. Our doctor was Dr. (George) Nagobads (1980 men's Olympic team doctor), and he was very animated, and in the locker room he kept telling us 'You're playing great, you're much better skaters, keep going.' I remember him and his Latvian accent cheering us on."

"We knew we had something to play for and that was something that in years past, I don't know if there was ever a chance," said Weinrich, now an assistant coach with the American Hockey League's Portland Pirates. "We were on top of our game. I think guys were doing whatever they could to see if they could pull out a win."

They did just that, and in the process established the United States as more than a developmental doormat.

"At that time we were still growing the program," Berglund said. "A lot of people still didn't know what junior hockey was. In Canada, junior hockey means one step from the pros. Down here, junior hockey means junior high."

The impact wasn't immediate, but it's been noticeable. After the 1986 group came an influx of future U.S.-born NHL stars like Jeremy Roenick, Bill Guerin, Doug Weight, Keith Tkachuk and Mike Modano.

"Taking home a medal, that becomes you're starting point as a goal," Chorske said. "The next year and the years to come, they can place that goal up on the board for the next junior team, 'These guys did it last year and it's something you can shoot for.' They were the beginning of that core group of Americans that became a lot of Olympic teams and Canada Cup teams. Behind us came the Tkachuks and Amontes and Weights and those guys. It was the beginning of some of that momentum."

"I think it just got the ball rolling," said Weinrich. "People started taking USA hockey more seriously in competition. It definitely opened the eyes of the people here in this country."

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