Around holiday time, an international tournament occurs that flies underneath most Americans’ radar, that being the IIHF U-20 Men’s World Junior Hockey Championships. This annual tournament is a yearly youth Olympic hockey competition which pits the best 20 and under aged hockey players from nations around the world with a chance to say whose country has the brightest collection of young up-and-coming hockey talent. These games often feature a tremendous collection of future NHL stars and the games are usually spirited and tense. One nation probably lives and dies more for the World Junior Championships than any other, is of course Canada. Canada has struggled in the last few years, having finished out of the gold medal for the last 5 seasons. Meanwhile, the United States has won it twice in the last 5 years (in 2010 and 2013) and that has to sting our neighbors to the north in a big way. With the 2015 WJC’s set to be held in the hockey mad meccas of Toronto and Montreal the pressure is only going to be intensified that much more for an always heavily-criticized Canada Hockey program. Canadians debate around the water cooler about what players should be on or off Team Canada as intensely as many NHL fans debate about their favorite team’s roster. They take a lot of pride in feeling as though they’re the ‘best’ in hockey. Fans in the State of Hockey should also understand this feeling as we often like to consider ourselves the best in U.S. and the listing of invitations for this year’s WJC Evaluation Camp again features a plethora of Minnesotans.
This is not that unusual. Minnesotans are used to leading the way for Team USA hockey programs in both the men’s and women’s teams at the junior and Olympic levels. The 1960 ‘Forgotten Miracle’ had 7 Minnesotans, the 1980 ‘Miracle on Ice’ team had 12 Minnesotans. Afterall we’re the State of Hockey right? Yet, that’s not to say the whole team will likely be made up of mostly of players from Minnesota, Michigan and Massachusetts with a few others sprinkled in here and there. If anything, the 2015 WJC roster could very well feature players from places like San Diego, California (Thatcher Demko); St. Louis, Missouri (Ryan MacInnis); and Scottsdale, Arizona (Brendan Burke and Auston Matthews) as well as notable contingents from Wisconsin, New York, and Illinois. This a testament to the growth of the game; especially in those non-traditional hockey markets and the NHL has to feel as though they’ve played a part in that. Still, Minnesota will likely send another significant contingent of players for the 2015 tournament as there are 11 players from the State of Hockey on the camp invitee list.
One thing is for certain, Minnesota players are willing to travel far and wide to chase their hockey dreams and its not just a bunch of kids coming from the college ranks as was the case for many years. Still, college hockey makes up a significant portion of those invitations 5 out of 11 (45%) but just as many come from the junior ranks with the USHL making up 4 out 11 (36%) and Canadian Major Junior with 2 out 11 (18%). You can see the entire invite roster here. When you consider the discussions by Minnesota High School hockey coaches talking about the exodus of high quality players to ‘junior A’ or prep-school (aka Shattuck-St. Mary’s) or the US National Development Program. One reason Canadians give for their struggles against the United States in particular is the strength of the US National Development Program which has been a factory of high level hockey talent for the last decade and the success of USA Hockey in the WJC’s is a testament to their hard work even if its not without some controversy. Team USA’s head coach for 2015 will be Burnsville, Minnesota-native Mark Osiecki.
Last year, Golden Gophers’ forward and Apple Valley-native Hudson Fasching had a particularly strong tournament last year and should be seen as a favorite to make the team that will have a lot of new faces from last year’s squad. I would also expect to see Gophers’ defenseman Michael Brodzinski from Blaine, Minnesota on the team as well. It will be interesting to see if former Golden Gophers commit in slightly built offensive defenseman Tommy Vanelli makes the team after passing on college hockey to opt for the more seldom taken Major Junior route. Vanelli had 14 goals, 41 points along with 34 PIM’s and was a +4 in 60 games with the Medicine Hat Tigers (WHL). Another player I’m interested to see if he makes the team is St. Cloud, Minnesota’s Austin Poganski. Poganski was an absolute scoring machine for St. Cloud Cathedral before opting to play in the USHL with Tri-City. He battled through injuries and inconsistency but still was a 4th round pick of the St. Louis Blues after scoring 19 goals, 31 points and 57 PIM’s in 55 games with the Storm. The University of North Dakota recruit is a player with decent size, terrific hands and that scoring touch that is simply instinctual that you can’t coach. Yet some scouts questioned his hockey sense as well as his roller coaster of a season which is why he slid in the draft a bit. Lastly, Edina’s Connor Hurley split his time between Muskegon and Green Bay of the USHL registering 13 goals, 50 points along with 32 PIM’s in 56 games last season. The Notre Dame-commit is lanky but a terrific skater and playmaker. I also expect to see Vinni Lettieri have a strong showing at WJC Evaluation Camp as he attended both the prospect camps of the New York Rangers as well as the Minnesota Wild on his own dime as NCAA rules mandate. He is undrafted and will want to showcase his talents on the big stage.
Wild Prospects also get a look
The Wild will be represented by 2 prospects at the Evaluation Camp in 1st round pick (17th Overall) in power forward Alex Tuch and fellow USNDT defenseman Louie Belpedio. Barring a horrible evaluation camp or an injury, I do not see how Tuch could not make the WJC roster. Team USA will certainly want to reunite the line of wunderkind and 2015 elligible Jack Eichel and fellow 2014 1st rounder (to Columbus) Sonny Milano which was a powerful line with the US National Development Team this season that won a U-18 World Junior Gold Medal this summer. Tuch played the role of the finisher and net presence for this trio as evidenced by his 29 goals, 64 points along with 72 PIM’s in 61 games this season. The 6’3″, 215lbs forward will likely play a big role in games played on the smaller North American style of rinks.
Also hoping to make the team, and more of a darkhorse pick is Skokie, Illinois-native Louie Belpedio who is a flashy offensive defenseman. Belpedio plays a game that should remind some fans of the Golden Gophers’ Mike Reilly as he likes to dangle the puck and jump into the play in the offensive zone. While his familiarity with the US National Development Team will help, I think the program will want more size. Yet only time will tell for the Miami (OH) recruit who is sure to get a chance to play a big role on a rebuilding Redhawks’ team.