The United States wasn't always a power at the World Junior Hockey Championship. But ongoing development of junior-age players and U.S.-based college feeder leagues has made this country a perennial force, the latest result being a silver medal claimed Saturday at this year's Under-20 tournament.
Inside the NHL
Fortunes sure have changed for the United States at the World Junior Hockey Championship since Kent product Lexi Doner and teammates suited up for the 1980 tournament.
Back then, no one dreamed of winning a medal like the silver taken Saturday by the U.S. team in losing a tight final contest to Finland in Vancouver, B.C. Our country’s fourth straight medal at the Under-20 event – a prestigious showcase of future NHL talent — is the result of big happenings for U.S. hockey since that 1980 tournament ended with Doner’s team finishing next to last.
The biggest came a month after that world junior event, when Herb Brooks and his “Miracle on Ice’’ team captured gold at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y., stunning the Soviet Union and then outlasting Finland in the final contest. The iconic victory provided a needed jump-start to the U.S. game, especially at the youth and, eventually, junior levels.
“I think it just created so much interest and excitement in the game,’’ said Doner, 58, who still resides locally and owns the Kent Valley Ice Centre. “And after that, just the work put in by USA Hockey in organizing the sport at the junior levels. That’s when they started really working with the national players and it’s made a huge difference.’’
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Six years after the Olympic triumph, many of the resulting youth-hockey sign-ups had reached their late teens and helped the U.S. to its first world junior medal – a bronze behind the Soviets and Canada.
But before the Olympic victory in Lake Placid, junior hockey in the U.S. had been a hodgepodge mix. Doner played for the Lynnwood-based Northwest Americans in a British Columbia junior “B” league before being spotted at a national selects camp by U.S. coaching legend “Badger” Bob Johnson – who convinced him to play at a Massachusetts prep academy before earning a scholarship to the University of Wisconsin.
Much of Doner’s team at the 1980 world junior tournament, played in Finland, took similar routes. They had a few future NHL players, such as Brian Mullen – who teamed with Doner at Wisconsin – Bob Brooke and Dave Jensen. But the roster contained mostly minor-league-ceiling players, like Doner, who had jumped to the U.S. college ranks straight from high school or lower-tier Canadian junior leagues.
“We knew it was going to be tough against the Canadians and the Russians,’’ said Doner, whose U.S. squad finished 1-3-1 with a surprise 5-5 tie against the bronze-medalist Swedes. “We had a few pretty good players and knew we could be competitive and keep things close, but that was about it.’’
Contrast that with the current silver-medalist U.S. squad, where 21 out of 23 players have already been drafted or signed by NHL teams. And that doesn’t include star forward Jack Hughes, 18, who only becomes draft eligible this year and is expected to go No. 1 overall.
Hughes’ older brother, Quinn, was selected seventh overall by the Vancouver Canucks last spring and was one of six NHL first-rounders with the U.S. side.
The difference from Doner’s days didn’t happen overnight.
It starts with the ever-improving United States Hockey League (USHL) as a bona fide junior alternative for elite American hockey players previously pushed toward the “major-junior’’ route to the NHL. While major-junior teams – including the Western Hockey League and its Seattle Thunderbirds and Everett Silvertips teams playing under the Canadian Hockey League umbrella — pay stipends to players, causing them to lose NCAA eligibility, that isn’t the case with the USHL and has made it a major U.S. college pipeline.
The USHL became a full-fledged junior league in the 1979-80 season and by 1996 had signed a critical agreement with the newly-formed U.S. national team development program in Michigan.
The development program of elite junior prospects put a U-17 team in the USHL while its U-18 team played exhibitions with USHL and college squads as well as international tournaments. Since the program’s formation, the U.S. has won four world junior gold medals, two silvers and four bronze after having claimed just two bronze in 20 prior years of the tournament.
By 2001, the USHL had progressed to where it was certified by USA Hockey as the nation’s only “Tier I’’ program while the slightly older North American Hockey League (NAHL) was classified at the “Tier II’’ junior level. The NAHL was a notch below the USHL talent-wise, though both evolved into college feeder systems and — not surprisingly — the U.S. soon after won its first world juniors gold in 2004 and added three more in 2010, 2013 and 2017.
Most scouts and analysts agree the USHL remains slightly below the Canadian major-junior leagues in overall depth, but the top lines in both circuits match up fairly evenly. Unlike the major-junior leagues, where players ages 16-to-20 play three or four years, a USHL career usually serves as a one- or two-year springboard into college.
Of the 23 players on this year’s U.S. silver-medalist squad, 20 had USHL experience and 11 were part of the national-team development program. And 19 of those silver medalists are playing in the U.S. college ranks.
They include star goaltender Cayden Primeau, a Montreal Canadiens draft pick whose father, Keith, was a Detroit Red Wings and Philadelphia Flyers mainstay. Primeau’s Canadian-born father had taken the traditional route of spending three years in the major-junior Ontario Hockey League (OHL) before jumping to the NHL.
But the younger Primeau, raised near the Flyers training facility in Voorhees, N.J., played in the USHL for the Lincoln Stars and then the U-18 national development program and Northeastern University.
He told NBC Sports in 2017 that he bypassed the OHL because the NCAA was “the best route’’ for him personally. “College hockey in Boston, hockey alone in Boston, is just one thing in itself and then when I started talking to Northeastern, I went to visit the campus, it was beautiful and I loved it, so I felt like it was the right fit.’’
Doner had that college experience at Wisconsin but his professional play was limited to a couple of years in Germany. He agrees the biggest difference in U.S. junior players today is they now have the pre-college skills development by age 18 those in his day didn’t get until they were 20.
“I think it’s made a huge difference,’’ Doner said.
Indeed, watching the long faces of the U.S. squad after losing gold to Finland on Saturday tells the full story. No longer are American teens going to these tournaments expecting to merely compete.
Now, just like perennial world-junior powers Canada and Russia, they expect to win.