hoped to leave the Czech Republic
with a medal.
Instead, it returned from the 2008 International Ice Hockey Federation World Junior Championship in Pardubice and Liberec, Czech Republic, empty-handed.
The Americans entered the tournament hoping to improve upon their bronze-medal finish from a year ago. Team USA seemed poised to do just that as it cruised through the preliminary round with a 4-0 record.
However, the squad dropped a 4-1 decision to Canada, the eventual champion, in the semifinals. Russia posted a 4-2 win over Team USA in the bronze medal game.
“We had a really good tournament. I felt that we had a really good team. It shows in that we went 4-0 in the preliminary round,” said Penguins prospect Brian Strait, who was Team USA’s captain. “The money games are the semifinals and the bronze medal game and we kind of had a tough time. It really didn’t work out the way we wanted to, but that’s OK.”
Even though there were no medals hanging around their necks, Team USA’s players returned home with a wealth of experience that will help them in the future, as well as some unforgettable memories from the tournament.
“Just the speed that the game was played at over there – you’re playing against world-class players. These are some of the best players at their age group in the world,” Strait said. “A lot of them will end up playing in the NHL one day. So, I think the speed was a lot faster than college hockey. I think it was a step above college hockey and I think it’s really going to help me for the second half of the season.”
Strait, a 2006 third-round Penguins draft choice (65th overall), was in Team USA’s defensive corps for the tournament. He thought he fared well against some of his most-talented peers.
“I felt pretty good out there. I thought I played really well for what I was asked to do,” he said. “I knew coming into the tournament they were going to have me play 5-on-5 and penalty kill mainly and that’s what I did. I didn’t play any power play. I basically knew my role and I thought I did it to the best of my ability. I am pretty sure I played to my potential over there, but I think that everybody did.”
The oldest player on Team USA’s roster (he turned 20 the day the U.S. battled Canada), Strait was voted team captain by his teammates. But, that role was nothing new to him. He is a former captain of the U.S. National Under-18 Team. He helped lead Team USA to the gold medal at the 2006 IIHF World Under-18 Championship in April, 2006.
“Since I left the national program where I was the captain of the Under-18 team, a goal of mine was to make the World Junior team, obviously, but it was also to be the captain of the team,” he said. “I was hoping I’d have that opportunity because I really felt that I had grown into a pretty good leader and someone that people look up to in a leadership position. I felt that was something I really had to offer to the team. When they announced it, it was special because the players themselves picked the captains and I felt pretty honored that they picked me.”
Even though Team USA finished fourth, they showed the future of USA Hockey is bright. James vanRiemsdyk, the second-overall pick in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft, led all scorers in the tournament with 11 points (5+6) in six games. In addition, his linemates Jordan Schroeder (8 points) and Colin Wilson (7) emerged as top talents. And, with youngsters Patrick Kane (Chicago) and Erik Johnson (St. Louis) thriving in the NHL, Strait sees good things on the horizon for the program.
“Oh definitely. I think the USA has some of the best prospects in hockey these days,” he said. “Seeing guys like Erik Johnson and Pat Kane going back-to-back No. 1 overall and then Pat Kane and vanRiemsdyk going 1-2 this year, and you have those guys like Jordan Schroeder and Colin Wilson and I think there are only bright things ahead for USA Hockey. Guys like those are going to lead us to more World Championships and Olympic championships and whatnot.”
Now, Strait has his focus on helping Boston University overcome a slow start. The sophomore had eight assists in 20 games for the Terriers (7-11-4 overall, 6-6-3 Hockey East).
“We struggled in the first half. It’s not the best season we’ve had. But, I think in the second half of the season, you’re going to see a different Boston University team,” he said. “We really tried to refocus after the holiday break. Hopefully, we can get back on track because this is really when you have to make the push so we can get into the Hockey East playoffs and hopefully get into the NCAA tournament. You have to play your best hockey at the end of the year, so hopefully our best hockey is ahead of us.”