Playing in an international tournament often is a foreign experience for young players in college or junior hockey. Players who don't know each other – or know each other only as opponents – are thrust together with one goal in mind: representing the best of their country.
International play often is unfamiliar for college or junior hockey players and finding the right mix can be a challenge. This year, it is the responsibility of Dean Blais and Jim Johannson to find the right mix for Team USA at the World Junior Championships.
For University of Nebraska-Omaha coach Dean Blais, serving behind the bench for Team USA for the third time at the IIHF World Junior Championships is a tremendous honor.
"Whether you're wearing a jersey or behind the bench, (representing your country) is the ultimate," Blais said. "The ultimate is the Olympics of course, one step above, but (World Juniors) isn't too far behind it. To play and represent your country, in Canada, on the world stage cannot be better."
On Tuesday, USA Hockey unveiled its preliminary roster for this year's tournament, scheduled for Dec. 26 through Jan. 5, 2012 in Alberta. Every year, the tournament attracts a lot of attention from NHL general managers and scouts. With several high-profile players on USA's preliminary roster, this year's tournament should be no different.
The final 22-man roster is likely to be decided on Dec. 22, following a camp and exhibition games against Russia, Switzerland, and Slovakia. But the preliminary roster itself shows a team that is going to be stacked with talent.
"We're excited about the depth of our roster," said Jim Johannson, general manager for the 2012 USA world junior team. "There's going to be 29 guys up for 22 spots, so the math is real easy, and these guys will all come (to camp) ready to play."
Though Blais and Johannson noted that returning players are not guaranteed a spot on the team, it's assumed that forward Jason Zucker (University of Denver) and goaltender Jack Campbell (Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds) will be making their third tournament appearances with Team USA. Blais and Johannson point to Zucker's leadership on the team, a quality that could make him a good choice for this year's team captain.
"(Zucker) doesn't have a real weakness to his game, he's a leader," Blais said. "He's fast, he's tough, he finishes his checks, he blocks shots. I think he's going to rub off in a real positive way on the whole team."
Also vying for a spot on the final roster are two players with some NHL experience: forward Brandon Saad and defenseman Justin Faulk. Saad, selected in the second round (43rd overall) of the 2011 draft, played two games with the Chicago Blackhawks before being returned to the Saginaw Spirit.
Though Saad was not present at the USA's tryout camp this summer, Johannson kept a close eye on him and deemed him ready to compete for a spot on the final roster.
"When he went to Saginaw (after playing with Chicago), he performed well," Johannson said. "He's competing in all aspects of the game that we saw in him as a younger player and what he needed to improve on. He's shown that."
Justin Faulk, who left the University of Minnesota-Duluth to sign with the Carolina Hurricanes, has played 12 games this season with the Hurricanes, and 12 with their AHL affiliate, the Charlotte Checkers. He would be a very valuable addition to USA's blue line, but there is one snag: the Hurricanes would have to allow him to attend not only the tournament, but also December's camp.
But Johannson is very hopeful that Carolina's will grant their permission.
"We've been in communication with the Carolina Hurricanes. We don't have a set in stone date as far as to when that decision is made," Johannson said. "We have said that we would want him at camp and that's known by all the parties. It just falls out to where things are at with Carolina and Justin and what they feel is best (for both the Hurricanes and Faulk)."
There is good precedent for NHL clubs allowing USA players to participate in World Juniors.
Defenseman John Carlson was already playing with the Hershey Bears when he was selected to the tournament roster two years ago. The Washington Capitals granted him permission to participate and Carlson went on to score the overtime goal in the gold-medal game against Canada, sending the Americans home from Saskatoon with gold.
Winning gold on Canadian soil is a feat that the Americans are looking to repeat this year, but first comes the challenge of setting a final roster.
"We're very excited to see what this group of players brings to camp," Johannson said. "The talent and skill that all of these players bring will make trimming the roster tough, but we look forward to the process."
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