finished second at the Deutschland Cup in Germany
Yet, it was a golden experience for Tom Fitzgerald and John Curry.
Fitzgerald, in his first season as the Penguins’ Director of Player Development, and Curry, a goaltender in his first season in the Penguins’ system, gained valuable lessons with Team USA.
Fitzgerald served as an assistant coach for the team, which lost to Switzerland in a shootout in the championship contest and finished second with a 2-1-1 record.
“Everyone takes this tournament seriously and wants to win, but the intensity is a little different than the World Juniors or World Championships,” Fitzgerald said. “The kids playing in Europe are giving up their vacations to play for their country in this tournament. It was a relaxed atmosphere. The kids enjoyed themselves and had fun.
“It was good for me, coaching for the first time, to be in a good environment. It was pretty casual and laid back. There was no pressure – you just went out and played. We didn’t handcuff the kids with systems. You gave them a foundation of how you wanted them to play and what you wanted them to do in certain situations. We felt like we gave them the best opportunity to win the games by pre-scouting the other teams and breaking down their trap or what they do on a power-play break. Every team in Europe plays a very high trap. You set up by the net and they are up by the blue line. So, things like that, the Xs and Os things were something I really enjoyed.”
Meanwhile, Curry was the go-to guy in goal for Team USA, which featured a roster of mostly players from European professional leagues as well as a few from AHL, ECHL and college teams. He posted a 1-0-1 record, a 1.92 goals-against average and a .946 save percentage.
“It was awesome. I’ve never got a chance to play for Team USA, so it was a huge honor, a lot of fun and also a great learning experience, just being over there with the guys,” he said. “It was a little bit of a confidence boost as well, playing against some good players, and learning the speed and their style of game.
“I was lucky enough to get in there and play most of the games most of the time I was over there. Just to play, not only with the guys from your home country, but to wear that jersey was unbelievable.”
Curry got the nod in Team USA’s exhibition loss to Germany and started in net in a 3-2 win over Germany in the tournament’s first game on Nov. 8. He made 36 saves and earned player of the game honors.
“I didn’t know what to expect; I got that call for the first game against Germany, and I was really pumped up,” he said.
Fitzgerald was impressed.
“John Curry stood on his head. He played incredible,” he said. “The two goals they scored on John were both 6-on-3s. We got ourselves in trouble 5-on-3 and they pulled the goalie and scored. They did it again at the beginning of the third and scored again. They did it again with about 1:30 left and he stopped them. Curry played unbelievable. He played really well. He looked like the John Curry the staff scouted and signed this summer.”
Curry got the start in the championship game, too. He stopped 34 of 36 shots – including all seven he faced in overtime – in a 3-2 shootout loss to Switzerland. He allowed only one goal in the shootout, which proved to be the difference.
“He gave up two goals in regulation and they both were bombs – right underneath the crossbar, near his earlobes. I don’t know if he could have stopped them,” Fitzgerald said. “In overtime, they had seven shots and we had none. He shut the door.
“The first guy for them scored on him in the shootout, but I thought it was a really questionable goal because the guy came down really slow and deked to his left. John bit, but his right leg immediately pushed off the post to get over and John actually knocked the net off and they still counted the goal. One ref waved off the goal and said they’d go to video replay, but another awarded the goal,” he continued. “He played very well. We’re talking about playing against the Swiss national team that was without only a few Swiss players playing in the NHL.”
The tournament was a good stepping stone for Curry, who starred at the collegiate level. Last season, he ranked fourth in the NCAA with a 2.01 goals-against average and was sixth in save percentage (.928). He led the country with seven shutouts and was a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award, given annually to the country’s top college hockey player.
The Boston University product capped his collegiate career as an Rbk All-America First-Team selection, Hockey East Player of the Year and Hockey East First Team All-Star. He was the recipient of the Walter Brown Award as the best American-born Division I college hockey player in New England. He was the Terriers’ team MVP for the third-consecutive season and left the university as its all-time career leader in goals-against average (2.07) and save percentage (.923)
Signed by the Penguins as an undrafted free agent, the Minnesota native began the season in the ECHL on loan to Las Vegas. He sparkled in net there before joining Team USA and then being assigned to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in the AHL.
“I think the best thing for him was playing and playing in the ECHL and going to Las Vegas. He was 4-1 before he came over to us,” Fitzgerald said. “He’s played really well. He played against some really great players for us. I can’t say enough of how well he played. The guys played very confident in front of him, too.”
Curry, a 5-foot-11, 185-pounder, was happy to get a promotion to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
“Playing in Las Vegas went really well, I had a great time there also,” he said. “My goal is to play in the American League, but it’s necessary this year to play some games in the ECHL. It’s hard to focus on hockey out there when you’re walking around in shorts during the day. I don’t know if it’s for me.
“I don’t really have any definite expectations, as far as time and place, on where I’m going to be. Right now, I just really want to take it game by game and practice by practice. I know I’m being evaluated all the time, and the coaches are always watching. I’m getting a lot of support too and a lot of opportunities.”
Fitzgerald, who retired from a 17-year playing career following the 2005-06 NHL season, enjoyed getting behind the bench and coaching.
“Without a doubt it was great. In my role with the Penguins, for instance, I like talking about John Curry to Chuck Fletcher and Ray Shero and relaying what I see with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton or talking to this prospect or that prospect,” he said. “You see how Chuck and Ray piece together future lineups. I really, really like that. I am in the early stages of this part of the game for me. But, going over to Germany just really got the coaching juices flowing. I enjoyed it so much being in the trenches with the guys and running the defense and making changes.
“The chess match part of playing hockey from behind the bench, I really enjoyed that. I can’t say enough about how much I enjoyed it,” he said. “Also pre-scouting other teams and figuring out how to beat that high trap and things like that. It was a great experience.
I am going down this path right now and it’s eventually going to veer one way or the other – coaching or management.”
Fitzgerald would welcome another coaching opportunity with USA Hockey.
“Definitely. I couldn’t thank USA Hockey enough for the opportunity and I hope they keep me in mind for future teams,” he said. “Who knows what will happen? It was a lot of fun.”