You know you must be doing something right when your team wins a medal at five consecutive World Championships and people are asking when your squad will regain its dominant form.
Such is the problem that USA Hockey faces at the upcoming World U18 Championship on home ice.
More than ten years ago, around the start of the official IIHF World U18 Championship, USA Hockey created the National Team Development Program, a fancy title for what amounts to a standing national U17 and U18 team that train year-round together in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
While the results weren’t spectacular in the early years, the program started to pay dividends around 2002, when the country won its first gold medal at the World U18 Championship. Since 2002, the Americans have only missed the podium once.
The problem is, much like Canada’s dominance at the U20s has created unattainable expectations, so has the American success at U18s – albeit on a more modest scale.
In fact, when the U.S. wins, those around the championship often put an asterisk when they speak of the gold medal saying, “Well, of course they should win it, after all, the team plays together the entire year.”
And now, with the championship on home ice and the U.S. missing the gold medal the last two seasons, expectations are high, and the pressure is on.
“I guess you could say it’s a positive problem,” says Jim Johannson, USA Hockey’s Director of International Hockey. “When we started the program, there weren’t many that gave it a chance to succeed and now people expect nothing but success from it. It says a lot about how far our junior hockey has come in a short time.”
Other countries have tried to emulate the U.S. program, but only at the U20 level, where a handful of countries have their team play a partial schedule in local professional leagues. But thus far, USA Hockey holds the monopoly on U18 development.
Which is why the two non-gold finishes are even more frustrating. Last year the U.S. fell against Russia, 3-1, in front of 9,500 spectators in Kazan, Russia, while the previous year they lost the gold medal game, again against Russia by just one goal.
The fact is, few nations have been able to string together a successful U18 team at the April championship besides USA and Russia. The Russians have a record seven medals at the event, while the Americans have six. Canada, the U20 powerhouse is very much hit or miss at the U18s, and Finland, while a threat in the tournament’s early years, has fallen off the map recently.
Sweden is the most-likely team to break the cycle with its surge in its junior team program. But if history is any indication, the Americans have every reason to have high expectations, but should be leery of any medal round match-up against Russia.