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Friendship propelling U.S. National Under-18 Team

by Brian Fitzsimmons
There are plenty of teams in the world comprised of similar age groups that can score goals, play defense and win hockey games the same way the U.S. Men's National Under-18 Team can.

But there's a certain intangible, something no statistician can measure or compute that makes the United States believe it has the upper hand entering the 2009 IIHF World Under-18 Championships in North Dakota and Minnesota on Thursday.

"They're all talented teams, but we have a tightness about our group, and to get this gold medal would just be the icing on the cake," U.S. forward Chris Brown said. "The brotherhood that's built up here, it's awesome."

USA Hockey's National Team Development Program has housed many of the country's top prospects and future NHL draft picks for the past two years and has the chance to accomplish something special, considering the tournament will be held on U.S. soil for the first time in championship history.

The team has captured medals in the last five championships and was awarded the gold medal in 2002, 2005 and 2006.

"We're all really excited for it," forward Jeremy Morin said. "It's a privilege to work with each other, and for two years we've gotten really close. We've been working for this for two years now and we're all really excited.

"This is all new and it's different from last year. But this year and last year, it's always been 'team first.' We just want to win together and to do that, you have to put yourself behind the team. We're very good at doing that."

The 10-nation tournament features the world's top players – all under the age of 18. The U.S. team will be grouped with Russia, Finland, Slovakia and Norway in the first round of play.

Though the competition will be fierce, U.S. coach Ron Rolston has taken pride in guiding a club filled with budding stars.

"Certainly when you're at the program, most of the players play together for two years," Rolston said. "They travel together and go through a lot of challenges, adversity and success. It allows them to become brothers and become very close. For us, the chemistry is good, which makes for a good hockey team.

"It's certainly been an opportunity at the program to work with these great young men and watch them grow. When it comes to social and physical maturity, it's fun to see them grow as human beings."

Brown, who has recorded 15 goals, 13 assists and a team-high 108 penalty minutes in 53 games this season entering the tournament, is one of those players. The 18-year-old Flower Mound, Texas, native signed a national letter of intent to attend the University of Michigan next fall and is looking forward to his latest hurdle.

"I'm excited to get the opportunity to play in the U-18 worlds, and to have it on U.S. soil, it's great," Brown said. "We have the chance to show the U.S. can compete for a gold medal on all levels. We want to continue the tradition and show the world U.S. hockey is a force to be reckoned with."

Morin, the team's leading scorer with 26 goals and 48 points in 46 contests, leads a strong cast of offensive-minded skaters such as Ryan Bourque, A.J. Treais, Jerry D'Amigo and Kenny Ryan.

"We have great chemistry off the ice and it translates on the ice for sure," Morin said. "We all trust each other."

That reliance will certainly be tested as the U.S. team is slated to begin the tournament in a tough bracket.

"We're in a good bracket and we have to be at our best," Rolston said. "There are probably five teams that can win this. We have a good team, but there are a lot of good teams. We have to be at our best."

Though the mysterious dismissal of the Notre Dame-bound forward Kyle Palmieri last month left a small dent on a balanced offense, it hasn't polluted the excitement for the United States.

"Absolutely, everyone's excited to play this tournament on U.S. soil," Morin said. "We have the country behind us. That's a good feeling."

And like always, they'll have each other.

"The team here helps each other, we play for each other and we push each other to get good grades and be the best hockey players we can be," Brown said. "We're all best friends coming in and we'll be best friends when we leave, no matter what happens in hockey."

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