The kids are alright for Team USA
by Andy Potts|23 MAY 2022
Team USA's youngest player, Luke Hughes (#43) celebrates his game-winner against Austria. Fellow youngster Sean Farrell (#26) goes to join the party.
photo: Andre Ringuette / HHOF-IIHF Images
Team USA brought a handful of rising stars to Finland for this year’s World Championship. As the group stage draws to a close, here’s a look at how the NCAA contingent on David Quinn’s team is adapting to life in a very different hockey environment.

Quinn has the option of unleashing a ‘varsity line’ at the Worlds, with defencemen Luke Hughes and Nick Blankenburg joined by forwards Sean Farrell, Thomas Bordeleau and Ben Meyers on the roster. That hasn’t happened, but all five youngsters have enjoyed solid ice time in their appearances in Tampere.

The youngest of the group is also arguably the highest-profile player among them. Luke Hughes, 18, is part of a fledgling hockey dynasty alongside his brothers Quinn and Jack. Drafted by New Jersey, where big brother Jack is already a major part of the offence, Luke spent this season with University of Michigan steadily refining his game.

And that’s already had an impact in Finland, where his overtime winner completed a battling fightback against Austria in the second game. That goal prompted an ‘eagle’ celebration inspired by his nickname in the locker room – and the whole World Championship experience is a big part of helping Hughes grow as a player.

“It was a goal of mine at the start of the season to play in this tournament,” the youngster said. “It’s an honour to wear the USA crest and the guys have been great to me.

“I’m the youngest guy on the team and seeing how these pros act in the locker room, away from the rink, just watching and learning has been a great experience for me.”

While that goal against Austria was a stand-out moment, Hughes has also shown solid form at the other end of the ice. Witness, for example, his big intervention in the second period of the USA’s game against Czechia, where he tracked back to deny Jakub Vrana a big scoring chance after a stretch pass put the American net in jeopardy. 

Hughes has attracted most attention here but assistant captain Austin Watson has been impressed with the whole quintet.

“We’ve got a few of them here, and they’ve been great,” he said. “They’ve been sponges with the coaching staff, they’ve really tried to embrace it, buying into the team system and learning on the fly.

“This is a different game for them, playing against pros, playing against men, but they’ve adapted very quickly.”

Defenceman Blankenburg spent the bulk of the season as captain of Michigan’s Wolverines, heading a stacked roster that features not only Hughes and Bordeleau, but also the highly-rated Matty Beniers. His season ended with a look at the NHL – seven games, one goal, three points for the Blue Jackets. In Finland he was looking solid through four games, only to fall victim to the rash of injuries that has left Team USA skating with just five blue liners in its last two outings.

While Hughes and Blankenburg are playing their first senior international tournament, this is not an entirely new experience for everyone. Sean Farrell is back in USA colours after an impressive performance at the Olympics in February. The Harvard forward caught the eye with a hat-trick in his team’s opening game against China in Beijing and finished with 6 (3+3) points at the Games. In Finland, the Canadiens prospect has three more helpers from his first five games – including one on that Hughes OT tally – and the 20-year-old continues to look the part in the international game.

His fellow forward Ben Meyers also has Olympic experience. Since then, he signed for the Avalanche after three years at the University of Minnesota and potted his first NHL goal three minutes into his debut. Ineligible for this year’s play-offs, the 23-year-old centre is enjoying his time in Tampere. On the ice, he has a goal and two assists; off it, he’s finding the experience of a major tournament here more fun than coping with the unique challenges of life in locked-down China back in February.

Like Meyers, Bordeleau has his first taste of NHL action after impressing in Michigan and securing a contract with the Sharks. Following in the footsteps of his father, Sebastien, whose 251 NHL appearances were split between Montreal, Nashville, Minnesota and Phoenix, Thomas is already noted for his prowess in the face-off circle. Tackling the draw in this environment is a new challenge, but we’ve seen evidence that even as a 20-year-old standing just 178cm, he’s got the skills to deliver on the dot. Over the course of the tournament he’s +1 for face-offs, and his best performance came against a strong Finnish team when he won eight out of 12 draws.

It's not at the same level he showed earlier in the season in the NCAA. However, the World Championship is another level of hockey and Bordeleau is still building his game. And, as he told the San Jose Hockey Now website back in the fall, strong hands at the draw are a family trait.

“It kinda came from my dad,” Bordeleau said. “He taught me early on that it was free ice time. If the coach trusts you on the face-off dot, then you’re going to get on more often.”