Saturday, December 26, 2009

WJC: Gold Rush, American Style

Perhaps Jordan Schroeder should change his number from 19 to 49.

You see, even without a pick ax and a pan, he's still searching for gold.

However, the subtle change may not be enough to stop optimistic supporters from saying things like "third time's a charm." An expression that may sound up beat, yet he still remembers his first visit to the World Junior Championships two years ago and the bitter taste of fourth place. Things were even worse last year when his team finished fifth.

Sure, he has two medals from the U-18 tournaments (that's under-18 for the new folks in town). And his silver medal from 2007 and bronze medal in 2008 should have led to bigger and better things for the U.S. hockey program. To date, it hasn't though. So, Schroeder is back for his third and final trip to the World Jrs. Still searching for that elusive medal. Gold preferably. Yet, honestly, wouldn't anything do at this point?

Although it's often said that most individual records aren't as important as team success in organized sports, a quick look at the 20 all-time leading scorers in the history of the WJC is telling. Seeing only one American - Jeremy Roenick - is no surprise, given Team USA's poor history in the tournament.

Things appeared to be changing back in 2004 when the Americans beat Team Canada for their first ever gold medal. That team featured guys like Dustin Brown, Patrick O'Sullivan, Ryan Suter, Ryan Kesler, and Zach Parise. Most of those guys have advanced through the U.S. system and will be wearing red, white and blue jerseys at the upcoming Olympics.

There's probably a little irony in there somewhere, with those games set to be hosted by Vancouver and the hockey portion to be played at GM Palace. The same building and city that Schroeder may call home some day, as he was a first round draft pick of the Canucks back in June.

For now, he's still playing for Team USA; surrounded by a group of largely teenagers. For the next two weeks he'll be trying to provide a little offense to a team built around defense and goaltending. Most importantly though, he's aiming to get the team back to a medal round for only the second time since the big win back in '04 (they finished 3rd in '07).

Individually (and perhaps silently), he may also have his eye on another prize. Last year Schroeder set the all-time record for assists by an American player at the WJC, with 15. This year, he'll take aim at Roenick's all-time points mark for Americans. JR sits #1 with 25 points (12 goals, 13 assists = 25 pts in 14 games). Schroeder has 19 points (4, 15 = 19 in 12 games).

Even if he passes JR, coming home without a medal this year will be another devastating blow to him personally and for USA hockey. Any momentum from '04 is long gone. This is about getting things going before the tournament lands back on U.S. soil next year in Buffalo.

Canada is certainly the favorite this time around. They've won the whole thing five years running (or put differently, ever year since the U.S. team won their lone gold in '04). Russia, Sweden and Finland are always tough. But for now, Team USA is focused on one thing. Game one.

It's today at 5pm PST vs. Slovakia...and that team is no joke - last year they finished fourth and featured the guy that was probably the single most exciting player in the entire tournament, forward Tomas Tatar. Like Schroeder, he's back to try and help his home country too.

Getting off to a fast start is always important in such a short tournament. See all the drama and excitement unfold on the NHL Network later this afternoon.

Even if you don't recognize most of the names in today's game, remember that a good portion of the players will be NHL stars in only a few years. Just think, you can tell your friends you saw them back when...

The Mayor

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