Before flying to Helsinki for the World Junior Championships,
which run from Dec. 26 through Jan. 5, the U.S. players came
together as a complete team for the first time last week in New
York City. Sitting down to dinner, the 22-member squad, made up
mostly of college players, immediately clicked. "The chemistry is
unbelievable," says forward Zach Parise, a sophomore at North
Dakota. "The second we got together, everyone was laughing and
having a good time."
The good times should continue because the loaded U.S. roster is
the tournament favorite. In the 27-year history of the world
juniors, a 10-team affair for players 16-19 years old, the
Americans have won only three medals--two bronze (in 1986 and
'92) and one silver ('97).
The major advantage the U.S. has this year is experience: Not
only are most of its members accustomed to high-level
competition, but many have also been teammates, even linemates,
at other times. Eight players return from last year's U.S. squad,
which finished fourth, and 13 were members of the 2002 under-18
tournament team that shocked Russia in the gold medal game.
Parise, who averaged more than a point a game at last year's
world juniors, is the U.S. team's top offensive player, and
Wisconsin's Ryan Suter and Colorado College's Mark Stuart are
talented playmaking defensemen.
If there is a weakness on the club, it could be in goal. After
No. 1 netminder Jimmy Howard of Maine sprained his left knee last
week, he was replaced by Michigan State's Dominic Vicari, who has
no international experience. The new No. 1 goalie is Al Montoya,
who started as a freshman at Michigan last season, but he has not
proved himself at this level either.
Nevertheless, Parise and his teammates are confident that they
have the talent to win. "We know what to expect now," says
Parise, "and we're not shy going in."