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Gopher Hockey: Minnesota vs. USA U-18

One final tuneup before the second half of the conference schedule begins next weekend against...gulp... North Dakota. The Gophs finish up the Christmas holiday break looking for some momentum as they finished tied for 3rd in their own holiday tournament. Last I checked, the idea of holiday tournaments are to schedule fairly easy opponents so you can get some games in during the break, win it, and everyone goes home happy. Not so much for the latest installment as Minnesota lost in overtime to something called Union on New Year's Eve, and then followed that up with a 2-2 tie against Ferris Bueller State New Year's Day.

In coach Don Lucia's defense, both Union and Ferris St were ranked nationally coming in, which I'm sure wasn't expected when the two were scheduled a few years back. Also unexpected was that Minnesota would be struggling this much halfway through the season. Not in The Don's defense was the curious decision NOT to have a shoot-out to break the tie in the Ferris St game- especially after the PA announcer told people it would happen if the game ended in a tie. And why not, considering shootouts had ended ties in past Gopher holiday tournaments. Lucia's reasoning for cancelling the shootout? "There was no point." Well, you know, unless you were a paying customer or were watching on TV and wanted to see a shootout. In which case, well, there were a LOT of boos. And I can't say I blame them.

So the opponent tonight is a bunch of teens from the Team USA U-18 National Development Program based out of Ann Arbor, Michigan (if you want to feel old, these kids are all born in 1993. They weren't even born when Pearl Jam's "Ten" album came out!!!). The team is comprised of some of the best hockey prospects from around the country, and are split up into a U-17 and U-18 squad at the beginning of the season. The U-18 team plays more than 50 games against teams from D1 and D3, USHL junior hockey league, and two international tournaments. It's all prep for the annual U18 World Championships held every year in early April. It's a great idea that started in 1996 to help improve the development of USA hockey, and it's worked, as their showings in the U-17 and U-18 tourneys have improved dramatically since then. It certainly helps that the kids get to play together on the same team all season, as opposed to most other countries (like those hosers in Canada) who pull kids off their junior or club teams right before the tournament.

This year's squad has four Minnesota kids (the most of any state), but only one, Hopkins forward Travis Boyd, is committed to the U. Corcoran native Dan Carlson is still undeclared, while goalie Matt McNeely (Burnsville) is going to UMD, and D Matt Van Voorhis (Edina) is heading to Denver ("The sunshine state! Gorgeous!"). While this group is obviously young, they could be quite a handful, as they almost knocked off North Dakota, losing 2-1 up in Grand Forks at The Ralph. Minnesota returns freshmen Nick Bjugstad (USA) and Erik Haula (Finland) who were representing their countries in the World Junior Championship in beautiful Buffalo (USA forward Emerson Etem's favorite place in the whole world) during the semester break.

This game will serve as a good opportunity to see some of the USA's best and brightest young high school-aged prospects, but if you want to see them, you'll have to be at Mariucci, because it's neither on TV nor the radio. I suppose at least this way, if The Don decides to cancel another shootout, fewer people will know.