Make no mistake about it. This is a big game. It's one you circle on the calendar as soon as the schedule is released.
When it comes to hockey, Canada thinks they are the center of the universe. And when it comes to the World Junior Championships, they are. We can at least give them that one. They've won five straight gold medals and many believe they're the odds on favorite for a sixth.
However, they still need to play their arch nemesis - Team USA.
It will be a team filled with bright eyed youngsters hoping to become part of the next group of American superstars.
They're trying to take the reigns from a generation that was without a doubt the most successful group of all time. Sure, there was the gold medal team at the 1960 Winter Olympics. A one off. And there was the 1980 gold medal team. A miracle indeed.
Then came the explosion of elite U.S. players onto the world stage. Beginning in the late 80's at the World Junior Championships and continuing on to the Olympics and World Cups of the next two decades you had guys named Chelios, Guerin, Hull, Leetch, Modano, Tkachuk, Richter and Weight, just to name a few.
One more name from that list was Jeremy Roenick, who just so happens to be the all-time leader for points by an American player at the World Juniors. A record that may fall to this week to one of this year's assistant captains, Jordan Schroeder.
I spoke with JR last night to get his thoughts on the possibility of a new record holder and he shared some memories of his time at the World Juniors too...
MM: Jordan Schroeder is three points away from tying your record of 25 points...
JR: Well, at least my record held for twenty years (he laughs). That's good for American hockey though if he does. We need good kids coming up in the game, you know, the next generation of U.S. players.
Well, this is his third tournament...
That makes it OK then. It's going to take him three times and I did it in two, so that makes it OK (he laughs again, a constant whenever you talk to JR). Seriously though, it will be a great accomplishment for him.
Let's talk about some of your experiences at the World Juniors. Your first trip in 1988 was a tough one for the U.S., you guys only won one game...
Yeah, it was a tough one. That was right when the transition was beginning. The U.S. was just starting to get some good talent coming up. You had Modano, Amonte, Leetch and all those guys. We were all coming into our own. Before that, with the exception of maybe the '80 Olympic team, the U.S. was always one of those teams that was never competitive enough to grab a medal. I think that was right at the cusp of us starting to get really good, around '87-88 was when that change started to happen.
How about the experience of traveling to Russia for the tournament that year? It had to be a little overwhelming considering how young you were at the time.
Well, I was a sophomore in High School and it was really my first experience going overseas to play hockey. There was a lot of stuff going on with Russia and Canada at the time, there was a heated rivalry between those two. It was still a communist country back then and I remember everybody was under their rule. When you were standing outside the Lenin Square, everybody was waiting to go in to Lenin's tomb and they wouldn't let you walk in certain places. It was a total control thing. I also remember people were trading all sorts of things. Back then the black market was crazy. Some of us were trading food and clothing for things the Russians had, like those big wool hats - those were really cool. Other guys were trading their sneakers or gum and candy. They just ate it up because they didn't have stuff like that at the time.
You and Modano both had solid numbers that first year, even though the team wasn't doing so well. You finished with 5 goals and 4 assists. He had 4 goals too. Was the friendly rivalry already underway at that point?
We were brewing up a competitive edge before that. Like at the 17 Selects people were talking - I was the guy from Boston and Mo was the guy from Detroit. We were two of the guys everybody talked about and it just kept brewing from there. As we got older I always respected Mike and loved the way he played. Even today, he is probably one of my favorite players that I played with or against. I just don't think we see guys more talented than Mike Modano come along very often.
The following year Team USA was more competitive, going 3-3-1 up in Alaska. You led the tournament with 16 points and Modano was right behind you with 15. Anything stand out from your second trip to the World Juniors?
It was in our home country, but a place I had never been before. We were treated very well up there. The amenities were much better and our team was much better. Like I said earlier, that's really when we started rolling as a national powerhouse. That team was really strong. You can go right down the list from Modano and Amonte to the whole group of amazing players, you can see why we kept building momentum all the way up to the gold medal at the World Cup in '96.
In your first WJC you guys lost to Canada 5-4. At the second one in '89, even though the team was actually playing better in the tournament overall, you guys lost to Canada 5-1.
I remember that game, we were totally outmatched. They came out and played a very, very physical brand of hockey. They really took it to us. That game taught us a lot about what it was going to take internationally to win hockey games. I think that's when we started playing a physical game, more like the Canadians did. That was a big turning point for us, for my generation...and how we needed to play in order to beat them.
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As we were wrapping things up the talk briefly turned to Team USA's announcement of their Olympic roster coming up on Friday. Some of the players expected to make the team played for Team USA when they won the gold medal at the 2004 World Juniors. The Olympics would be the next step up for some of those guys. JR said he was "very curious and very excited" about seeing who makes the team. He wants to know who the new regime is going to be.
For now though, it's all about this tournament. Canada versus the USA, a marquee match-up every year. Both teams come into the game undefeated with the winner getting a bye into the semi-finals on Sunday. The loser gets an extra game on Saturday.
Can Jordan Schroeder pick up three points and tie JR for the all-time American points record? Can the U.S. upset Canada on their home turf?
Tune in at 5pm PST to witness it all live on the NHL Network.
This is one of those games you just don't want to miss.
Interview with Mike Modano
WJC: Canada-USA Lived Up to the Hype
USA Defeats Canada - gold medal game notes
WJC Gold Rush, American Style