UFA – The U20 is now old enough and firmly established enough that players who appeared in the tournament’s early years have had sons go on to play in the U20. In the case of the 2013 edition of the tournament, there are also three coaches who once skated as under-20 players and now dress in jacket and tie for the event – Ernst Höfner of Germany, Phil Housley of the United States, and Sean Simpson, the Canadian coach of Switzerland.
“I was just a young kid playing at the U20 tournament,” Höfner, now 55, reminisced. “This is a memory I will never forget. I remember everything about the tournament. In those days, Germany always struggled to avoid relegation, so we had to focus on every game and win at least one, which we did. So we stayed in the A pool.”
Indeed, West Germany won two games, finished a respectable sixth, and played in the top pool in 1978. Höfner went on to play at the 1980 and ’84 Olympics for his country as well as the 1984 Canada Cup. As impressive, he became a coach after his playing days and has been with Germany’s U20 team in now his 14th season.
“When I was a player,” he explained, “one of my coaches was Jan Starsi who won World Championship titles. I was really impressed with him and wanted to do what he did.”
While other opportunities have come along for Höfner , he has remained fiercely loyal to the junior program. “For me, it’s more fun working with the young kids, even though some games like this (8-0 loss to USA last night) aren’t a lot of fun. I love it, watching them develop to become good hockey players.”
Simpson’s memories are similar in that his powers of recollection are strong. “It was a big thrill obviously,” he began. “I told a Russian crew the other day that I remember Larionov and Krutov, and they won the gold medal. They were dominant, unbelievable. It was in Helsinki. I remember the first game we played, Canada against Finland. Reijo Ruotsalainen and Jari Kurri were playing. I’m showing my age, but it was a big thrill. Mike Keenan was our coach; Dick Todd was the assistant. We had Dino Ciccarelli on that team.”
Indeed, the Canadians also had Larry Murphy, who along with Ciccarelli went on to enjoy careers that took them to the Hockey Hall of Fame. Not many U20 teams can boast two hall of famers.
“I don’t want to appear like I’m a Canadian junior team player,” he said with humility, “because when I played the team that went to the U20 was the Memorial Cup champions plus a few additions. It wasn’t a full select National Team the way it is now. We went over with the Peterborough Petes team, and I was playing with the Ottawa 67’s. They picked up five players and I was one, along with Dino, Rick Lanz from Oshawa, and a couple of others.”
Canada finished fifth that year and Simpson went on to play pro for the better part of a decade. What he fails to mention is that he was added to the 1980 team because he was having a sensational junior year with the 67’s. He finished the season with 65 goals and 149 points in 67 games and was drafted by Chicago 141st overall that summer.
Housley was yet another different example of U20 talent. Incredibly, he was playing high-school hockey when he was named to the team, a situation that would probably never arise today for a variety of reasons. First, the USA Hockey program is so deep and rich in talent right now that it doesn’t need to look to high school to recruit U20s. Second, if Housley were playing today, he would have been part of the U18 National Team Development Program and gone through that stream to get to the U20.
“That’s because of the 1980 Olympic team,” he explained of the development within his country. “They really put us on the map for hockey and opened a lot of doors for players like myself who were young trying to get to the NHL.”
Although the team finished sixth and won only two of seven games, it did so with an anonymous group except for Housley, defenceman Chris Chelios, and goalie John Vanbiesbrouck. “Those were two prominent players in U.S. hockey history,” Housley, himself a member of the IIHF Hall of Fame as of 2012, enthused. “There were a lot of really good college players on that team as well, and three high school players – Tony Kellin, Corey Millen, and myself.”
Participating in 1982 was also special for the offensive defenceman for two other reasons. “That was my first event playing for the red, white, and blue. And it was in Minnesota, my home state, which was nice playing in front of my family and friends. It’s something I’ll never forget. The intensity and pace of the play was a lot quicker than I was accustomed to.”
In fact, that 1982 hosting was different in that although Minnesota was the host, some of the games were played north of the border in Winnipeg and Kenora, and several other smaller cities in Minnesota state also hosted, including Brainerd, Mankato, and New Ulm.
“I still have a team picture, and when I look at it, it makes me laugh,” Housley said. “I scored one goal. I remember that. I think it was against Russia, but it was a long time ago.”
Indeed, it was a long time ago, a time before sold-out, NHL arenas hosted the U20, before comprehensive television coverage with massive ratings, and before drooling NHL scouts from 30 teams started showing up to assess every skater in the event.
“It’s hard to compare the tournament from then and today,” Höfner added. “Nowadays, the U20 is a professionally-organized event. And, really, it’s better than a senior men’s World Championship because all the top players are here.”
Thirty years ago, the top players included three who are here in Ufa as coaches. Time flies.