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World Juniors

World Junior title huge boost for USA Hockey

Dramatic win against Canada raises program's profile after World Cup disappointment

by Arpon Basu @ArponBasu / LNH.com Senior Managing Editor

MONTREAL -- United States national junior team coach Bob Motzko stepped onstage to take questions from the media, sat next to his Canadian counterpart, Dominique Ducharme, and was given the opportunity to make an opening remark.

It was a courtesy given to the gold medal-winning coach at the 2017 IIHF World Junior Championship.

Motzko began speaking of just how incredible a game it was, a back-and-forth battle against Canada in a Canadian arena with a largely Canadian crowd watching what most of them had to have felt was one of the best games they'd ever seen.

It was a game that could have gone either way, he said.

Except it didn't, with the United States winning 5-4 in a shootout late Thursday night after coming back from two goals down on two occasions, including once in the third period.

 Video: WJC Gold Medal Game Highlights: USA wins in shootout

"I just think it was a terrific heavyweight fight between two great hockey programs tonight," Motzko said, "and really, there's got to be a loser."

Comparing USA Hockey to Hockey Canada in that way would have seemed preposterous just more than three months ago, when Team USA fizzled out of the World Cup of Hockey 2016 without winning a game and Team Canada won the tournament without losing one.

At the time, the two hockey programs seemed to be in different weight classes.

That perception resonated with some of the players on the U.S. team here, and the responsibility to change it fell on their young shoulders.

"Before this game we said that USA Hockey took a hit at that World Cup in September, people's last viewing of USA was in a bad light," defenseman and Boston Bruins prospect Charlie McAvoy said. "But now we're world champions at the U-20 level, and that's the group that's coming up next."

But so much has changed since the World Cup in September, and even though it might have felt that way to McAvoy, the perception was already being put to rest in the NHL.

The coach of that U.S. World Cup team, John Tortorella, is the frontrunner for coach of the year with his Columbus Blue Jackets sitting atop the NHL standings. The Blue Jackets fell one game short of tying the NHL record for the longest winning streak when they lost 5-0 at the Washington Capitals on Thursday after winning 16 straight.

Video: Future of USA Hockey following the 2017 WJC

The best rookie in the NHL arguably is center Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs, the No. 1 pick in the 2016 NHL Draft, who was raised and trained in Arizona. Matthews is fourth in the NHL with 20 goals and second in the rookie scoring race with 34 points in 37 games, two points behind Winnipeg Jets forward Patrik Laine.

If Matthews is not the top rookie in the NHL, it might be defenseman Zach Werenski of the Blue Jackets, a native of Grosse Pointe, Michigan. He is fifth in NHL rookie scoring and tied for sixth among all defensemen with 25 points (six goals, 19 assists) in 37 games.

Matthews or Werenski could win the Calder Trophy as the NHL's best rookie one year after Chicago Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane, born in Buffalo, became the first U.S.-born-and-raised NHL scoring champion and most valuable player.

"We're building confidence," Motzko said of USA Hockey, "and this group of guys, this tournament, it was their time."

Whenever Canada loses at the WJC, the argument is made it could have easily won the tournament if it had all of its NHL players, and that could be said again this year with Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers and Mitchell Marner of the Maple Leafs among those in the NHL still eligible to play for Canada.

But that argument is not a slam dunk this year.

The U.S. had to go without Matthews, Werenski, Noah Hanifin of the Carolina Hurricanes and Matthew Tkachuk of the Calgary Flames, so that might actually have been a push.

The idea USA Hockey is declining based on how poorly it did at the World Cup and the 2014 Sochi Olympics, where it finished fourth after losing 5-0 to Finland in the bronze medal game, is not necessarily rooted in reality.

In the 2015 and 2016 NHL drafts combined, there were six American prospects selected in the top 10 compared to five for Canada. The 1997-born U.S. players who won the WJC on Thursday also won the IIHF under-18 and under-17 championships.

"We know how to win," McAvoy said.

Motzko, sitting next to Ducharme at Bell Centre, was reluctant to entertain the notion that USA Hockey has caught up to Hockey Canada. He's probably right; there still is a gap that needs to be bridged. But that gap is closing, and it's closing fast.

Motzko spoke of the depth of the U.S. team at the WJC and how the expansion of the NHL into non-traditional hockey markets is starting to benefit USA Hockey with elite players coming from those areas, citing Matthews as the example. Hockey participation numbers in the U.S. have climbed steadily during the past 10 years. The popularity of the WJC is growing as well, which can help lead to more young people getting interested in the game.

Video: Bob Motzko with Jill Savage on NHL Tonight

Winning the tournament can only help that.

"Ever since it started to be televised, every game, it's on [in] every locker room," Motzko said. "I got a text from a junior coach, he stopped practice and they put it on the big screen and they watched it. That's been done up here for years. Anytime you have success, people are following it.

"And it's a big story now."

All that being said, there is little question the reputation of the United States as a top hockey nation took a beating in September. The U.S. players felt it, and they wanted to fix it.

"Our country needed us at this point for hockey," said U.S. forward and New York Islanders prospect Kieffer Bellows, who scored two goals in the gold medal game. "Kids looking up to us, teenagers, older adults that love hockey so much looking up to us, and we came out on top.

"Hopefully the country's proud of us."

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