Oct. 8, 2003
by Andy Slaggert
This past August, I had the coaching opportunity of a lifetime as I was selected to serve as an assistant coach for the U.S. Under-18 Select Team that won the first gold medal for the United States at the Under-18 Junior World Cup.
The tournament was held in Piestany, Slovakia and Breclav, the Czech Republic and featured the top eight Under-18 teams in the world, playing a 20-game tournament over six days between August 11 and August 16.
Troy Jutting, from Minnesota State-Mankato, served as head coach of the team and Paul Caufield, from Wisconsin-Steven’s Point, was the other assistant. We got together for the first time at the Select 17 Festival in St. Cloud, Minn., during July. There, we watched all the District teams as they competed for the national championship. While they were playing for that title, we were evaluating them to see how they would fit on our roster.
During the week at the Select 17 Festival, we watched games and practices, talked with other coaches and evaluators, people we all respected, to help make our selections. We weren’t necessarily looking at statistics and selecting all the top scorers but we wanted to put the best team together and I think we were able to do that.
At the end of the week, we made our selections based on what happened at the Select Festival. All the players were chose were very excited. Some had played together in the past, for others, this was their first time. Some were very surprised that they were selected. They all went on to represent USA Hockey very well.
As a coaching staff, we didn’t have a great deal of time to work with the players on the ice. We had one conference call to set up all the logistics and then we sent emails to start the team building process. The team actually got together for the first time in Washington, D.C., in early August. We did some team building exercises, talked about some basic hockey systems and issued equipment. The next day, we were on the plane heading to Vienna, Austria. From there, we bussed over to Slovakia.
During our conference calls and the meeting in Washington, one thing coach Jutting stressed, since he had been involved in international tournaments before, was that things are going to come up over there and that we shouldn’t be surprised by anything that happens. Things like not getting calls from the officials, to maybe getting put in the worst locker room to game times changing. Just be ready for things to happen and deal with it.
Well, he was right. We got to Vienna and our sticks didn’t make it and some of the player’s equipment was missing. For our first two days of practice, we went to the local pro shop and bought sticks. We got enough equipment together so that everyone could practice. I thought it was a real testimony to our players that they made the most of it and never complained. We really had three pretty productive days of practice.
The sticks arrived in time for our first game on Aug. 10 versus Slovakia. We went into that game with some ideas for lines and defensive pairings and made some minor changes along the way. I handled changing the defense, coach Caufield took care of the forwards and coach Jutting oversaw everything. With the defense, once we set our pairings, we kept them together for the whole tournament. The U.S defeated Slovakia by a 4-2 score and after the game, we all thought we had the ingredients of a pretty good team that had a chance to medal. We were ready to start three straight days of pool play the following day versus Sweden.
Sweden had a good-sized team that played at a highly skilled level. I thought we were grittier and more competitive and won that game, 5-2. Our defense played very well, we only gave up two even-strength goals in the tournament. It was probably the coaching (remember, I was handling the defense). Seriously, our forwards back-checked like crazy. They worked the whole rink. Our defensemen may not have been the biggest group, but they were competitive and tough on the puck and they could all skate, plus we had some great goaltending behind them.
Our second tournament game came on Aug. 12 versus the Russians. It didn’t take much for our kids to get ready for this one. As usual, their skill level was incredibly high and we knew they had some highly ranked players. Our kids know the history; it’s always a big game when you play the Russians. As coaches, our job was to get them to treat it like it was another game.
Our players took a workman-like approach and we were able to win the game in overtime, 3-2. As it turned out, Aug. 12 was an eventful day. We had tied the game at 2-2 after two periods and as we went into the locker room, our interpreter told us that he had some bad news. Herb Brooks had been killed in the United States in a car accident. That’s when the staff found out, but the kids didn’t hear about it until after the game. It was really a poignant moment for our staff. How ironic, that the day Herb Brooks died, a USA Hockey team would be playing the Russians in international competition. We all had a sense of gratitude for him. We were most likely there, because of the role he played in USA Hockey at home and on the international level.
The win over the Russians was very emotional and the players were very excited and again we had to get them focused on the next game – versus the host team, Slovakia. Again, our kids responded. They didn’t let down after the overtime win versus Russia and gave an outstanding effort in a 5-1 win. They really worked hard over the three-day period to finish first in our pool.
August 14 was an off day and Coach Jutting made the decision that we weren’t going to even go to the rink after four games in four days. We did some sightseeing and toured the area. We had a nice dinner at a local restaurant and it really did the team a lot of good to take a break.
The medal round started on Aug. 15 and we played the second-place team from the other pool – Team Canada. They had to travel from the Czech Republic (about a two-hour ride) to play us in Piestany. Again, it was another big rivalry game and our players were excited to face the Canadians. They had a highly skilled lineup with some big name players. One of those players was Wes O’Neill who now plays for us at Notre Dame. I didn’t really get a chance to watch him, since I was more worried about our defensemen. I’m supposed to get a tape of the game and then I’ll get a chance to see how he played.
Canada got two first-period power-play goals and led 2-0 going into the intermission. Even though we trailed, I thought we had played pretty well. We came back in the second period and scored three unanswered goals to take a 3-2 lead. Following the third goal, Canada took a time-out and it gave us a chance to get our guys minds back on the game.
We reminded them that they had only taken the lead, they hadn’t won yet. We told them that the right team was winning, that they had outworked them and they deserved to have the lead. The game stayed 3-2 until Canada scored with 1:52 left in the game to send it to overtime. We started the overtime, having to kill a penalty and right after that, we scored the winning goal.
The players went crazy after the win and the coaches wanted to celebrate too, but we knew we had another game to get ready for the next day versus Russia. They had come-from-behind to beat the Czechs, 6-5, in the Czech Republic.
For the second game in a row, we fell behind on two first-period power-play goals. Our guys were resilient though. Down 2-0 to two pretty good hockey teams in Canada and Russia with a gold medal on the line, they really bounced back. We tied the game in the second period and went ahead in the third, winning 3-2 in regulation. I don’t know if we could have taken another overtime game.
The celebration was great! Some of the parents brought flags and the players skated around with the World Cup and the flags. As it turned out, our pool was the strongest as we won all the crossover games and then the title. We definitely had the best team. Maybe not the best individual, but the best team. Our guys really exemplified what USA Hockey is all about – speed, fore-checking, depth, putting team first, being unselfish. It was amazing the success they achieved in such a short time. They really had a great sense of team.
In looking back on it all now, I realize that the players, the coaches and the staff all had an incredible life experience back in August. Even if we hadn’t won a game, wearing your countries sweater, competing in a foreign country, playing against the best competition in the world, the people we met and the friendships we made gave us an incredible experience. The gold medal will always keep those kids connected even 50 years from now.
For me, getting the opportunity to coach in this tournament with the staff and players we had, is something that I’ll always look back on.
Note: Andy Slaggert begins his 11th season as an assistant coach at Notre Dame in 2003-04. Due to NCAA regulations, he could not comment on players who played for Team USA.