Can Caufield keep making music?
by Lucas Aykroyd|24 APR 2019
The U.S.'s Cole Caufield leads the 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship with 11 goals and 13 points through the preliminary round.
photo: Steve Kingsman / HHOF-IIHF Images

Cole Caufield is an elite goal-scorer, but he’s got the soul of a musician.

According to USA Hockey, Taylor Swift would be Caufield’s dream carpool karaoke partner. The 18-year-old forward retweeted a video of the U.S. women’s U18 team performing the Adele “Someone Like You” meme in Obihiro, Japan in January. And his National Team Development Program teammate John Beecher also recently filmed Caufield soulfully lip-synching along to The Fray’s “You Found Me.”

Clearly, whether he’s living it up with pop music or getting goals in Ornskoldsvik, this kid knows how to have fun.

“Right now, I'm pretty hot,” Caufield said with a smile. “So I'd like to keep it that way. But obviously, the wins are more important at this time. We've got a big game coming up.”

Heading into Thursday’s quarter-final showdown with defending champion Finland, Beecher is one of many Americans singing Caufield’s praises. The diminutive but dynamic winger leads the 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship with a jaw-dropping 11 goals and 13 points – way up from four goals and six points last year.

“It's what he does,” said Beecher, who, like Caufield, got two goals in a 7-1 win over Latvia to wrap up a perfect preliminary round. “He's the best goal-scorer around. So everybody's happy for him when he puts it in the back of the net.”

“It’s insane,” added U.S. captain Jack Hughes, who centres the top line with Caufield and Trevor Zegras. “He’s playing unbelievable right now. Hopefully he stays this hot for the rest of the tournament.”

Caufield and Hughes scored a record-tying four goals apiece in a 12-5 romp over Slovakia.

Asked to define what sets Hughes apart from other great puck-movers, Caufield said: “The stuff he does at top speed. It's just like crazy. I’ve never seen anybody else do that. It's hard to play with him – I think I've told people that before. But you've just got to have the brain to match his. I think that's come along and we've built some teamwork. We work really well together.”

Overshadowing Hughes – the likely #1 overall pick in June’s NHL Draft – isn’t easy. After all, the ultra-speedy little brother of Vancouver Canucks defenceman Quinn Hughes has already equalled his 2018 U18 MVP-winning point totals (5+7=12) in just four games. Yet when Caufield – the all-time top goal-scorer in NTDP history with 108 career goals – broke the single-tournament American U18 goal-scoring record (10) set by Phil Kessel (2005), that certainly merited extra fanfare.

“When something stands that long, it's quite the accomplishment,” said U.S. coach John Wroblewski. “With Cole, it's a combination of things. For truly great players, it has to be a perfect mix, and he's got it. It's the truest stick I've ever seen coming through the NTDP. Everything that comes off of it is pure. But there's something else there. It's a burning desire to play the game. It's true enjoyment and elation every time that puck goes in the back of the net for him. He just loves the game, and I think that combination is pretty deadly.”

Caufield’s performance places him alongside some of Russia’s greatest creative geniuses – and we’re not talking about Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev. Eleven goals sees him tied with 2018 Olympic MVP Ilya Kovalchuk (2001) and 2019 NHL scoring champ Nikita Kucherov (2011) for the second-highest total in tournament history. The native of Stevens Point, Wisconsin is just three goals behind Alexander Ovechkin’s all-time mark of 14 (2002).

Has Caufield modelled his sweet one-timers on “The Great 8”? Actually, like many kids from the Badger State, he can’t help gravitating toward the artistry of the nearby Chicago Blackhawks. 

“He's a really good player,” Caufield said of Ovechkin. “I mean, I kind of like to model my game after Alex DeBrincat. But [Ovechkin] is a goal-scorer, and I like to find spots like he does on the power play and stuff. So I mean, just to be compared to his shot or something is really special.”

DeBrincat, who is coming off a 41-goal season with Chicago and preparing to play his second straight IIHF World Championship in Slovakia, is a great role model to follow. Caufield has also sung the praises of another young American star, Calgary’s Johnny Gaudreau.

Expected to get drafted in the first round in June, this 170-cm, 74-kg ace takes pride in his 200-foot game. Notably, seven of his Ornskoldsvik goals have come at even strength, and he’s second in tournament plus-minus (+9) after teammate Cam York (+12). For today’s NHL, he doesn’t see his size as a drawback.

“I think there's more to my game than just scoring,” Caufield said. “Obviously, guys like DeBrincat and [Cam] Atkinson have helped with the smaller kind of guys in the league. It's given me more hope, I guess, and more drive to be the best I can be.”

The son of Paul and Kelly Caufield comes from a true-blue hockey family, and he’s excited about joining his older brother Brock with the University of Wisconsin Badgers under head coach Tony Granato in 2019-20. Wisconsin has produced a plethora of elite players, from Chris Chelios, Mike Richter, and Joe Pavelski on the men’s side to Hilary Knight, Brianna Decker, and Annie Pankowski on the women’s side.

However, this is no time for Caufield to get caught up in all the Hallelujah choruses. Rather, it’s time to take Taylor Swift’s advice and “Shake It Off.” Sure, he’s hot, but the Finns just beat Switzerland 12-0 – demonstrating that they can score more in one game than Caufield can in four. Ahem.

Anyway, coach Mika Marttila’s boys would love to beat the Americans like a drum in the 15.30 quarter-final at Fjallraven Center. There’s little harmony between the U.S. and Finland after clashing in three of the last four U18 finals. Caufield, Hughes, York, Alex Turcotte, and goalie Spencer Knight are the five returning players who settled for silver after a 3-2 final loss to Finland in Chelyabinsk last year.

Wroblewski, a 37-year-old former University of Notre Dame captain, knows this tournament well. He played in the inaugural 1999 edition in Germany, and has medaled at every U18 Worlds where he has served as either an assistant coach (2008 bronze, 2010 gold) or head coach (2017 gold).

Certainly, it’s impressive that Caufield has scored more than 35 percent of the U.S.’s tournament-leading 31 goals, with Hughes assisting on five of the right-handed shooter’s tallies. Yet according to Wroblewski, a more balanced attack will be needed in order to dethrone Finland and press on to a record-setting 11th gold medal for America.

“I think I'd like to see a collection of scoring, and hopefully Cole's a part of that going forward,” Wroblewski said. “Percentages would show you that he will be, but we need to start getting secondary scoring.”

And since this is the last kick at the U18 can for this group of 2001-born stars, they want to make sure they’re singing a victory song instead of a funeral dirge in northern Sweden.

Of Caufield and Hughes, Wroblewski added: “They're always really good. It's up to them now. The credits and accolades that have come in are awesome. But now their legacy is up right here. If we can continue to push these next three games, then that's for all of our players. People talk about the group a lot and what these kids have accomplished, and it is tremendous. But their legacy gets solidified here in the next three games, and that's what I mentioned in the locker room.”

Caufield is excited about facing Finland in a do-or-die situation: “We knew it wasn't going to be easy. We've got a lot of work to do and we're looking forward to playing a tough opponent right away.”

The hockey world is excited about seeing whether Cole Caufield will finish off these U18 Worlds on a high note.