first_imgIn case you missed it — and I know most of you did — the U.S. team won gold at the IIHF World Junior Championship. And yes, even though it is hockey, it’s still a big deal.Even though it’s not the senior squad — those guys will try for gold in the Olympics next month — any fan of USA Hockey has to be excited that the U-20 team won. Because internationally, America is an underdog in pretty much every major sport except basketball.See, the senior U.S. hockey team — which still is mainly remembered for the 1980 Olympics — has finished third or better just five times in 40 major international tournaments since the “Miracle on Ice.” If international hockey is Major League Baseball, then the Americans (at any level) are the Tampa Bay Rays and the Canadians are the Yankees, Red Sox and Phillies all rolled into one.So when the JV boys in the red, white and blue knocked off Canada in a 6-5 overtime thriller, nobody was more surprised than the mainly Canadian crowd of 15,171 that packed the Credit Union Center in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Canada had won the World Junior Championship gold for the past five years and 12 times since 1990, when most of the players on either team were born.The United States on the other hand, had medaled just twice in the WJC since 2000, taking bronze in 2007 and winning the gold in 2004 — under current University of Wisconsin men’s hockey head coach Mike Eaves.So yes, this most recent American victory qualifies as an upset, and a big one at that. It was an instant classic as well, featuring four lead changes and two Canada goals in the last four minutes of regulation to force overtime.Too bad nobody saw it, since it was on the NHL Network in the States, and I’m willing to bet more people have Playboy TV than the NHL Network.But the best part of this for hockey fans in Madison? Three of those gold medal winners play here at Wisconsin.Sophomores Jake Gardiner and Derek Stepan, as well as freshman John Ramage were all key players for Team USA. Stepan and Gardiner were fourth and fifth in plus/minus for the tournament, both going plus-nine. In layman’s terms, the two were on the ice for nine more U.S. goals for than U.S. goals against.Stepan was named team captain and was the tournament’s leading point-getter. His 14 points (4-10-14) led tournament MVP Jordan Eberle of Canada (8-5-13), and he was second on the team with 29 shots on goal.Ramage and Gardiner played strong defense throughout the tournament, with the former posting a respectable plus-five mark. Ramage wasn’t called for a single penalty, and assisted John Carlson’s incredible game-winning goal in the gold medal game. Both defensemen had three assists each in the seven games played.And although the players at the WJC aren’t as old or strong as the competition in NCAA hockey, Eaves said the level of play is still even.“It’s right there,” he said. “And the pace of the game that was there was excellent.”Meanwhile, back in Madison the Badgers “struggled” and went 2-0-1 with a slapped together lineup that used essentially five defensemen.Stepan, Gardiner and Ramage had played in all 18 of UW’s games before missing the Badger Hockey Showdown and an exhibition game against the U.S. U-18 team. While it’s a testament to the depth of the team that Wisconsin beat Merrimack and No. 5 Yale despite missing its biggest playmaker and two regular defensemen, it also shows how important those three are to the Badgers.Stepan is second on the team with 22 points, even though he’s missed two games. While the offense managed to click without him, the defense looked a bit out of sync at times, which is understandable given they were missing two of six regulars.But as important as that trio is to this year’s team (Wisconsin is going to the Frozen Four and anything less will be a disappointment), UW will need them to continue to develop for the future.With a veteran roster that includes seven seniors, UW will need its young guns to keep producing next season and beyond. Wisconsin loses leading goal scorer Blake Geoffrion, shots leader Ben Street and gifted forward Michael Davies to graduation in the spring.If junior defensemen Brendan Smith and Ryan McDonagh bolt for the NHL after this season — and there’s a good chance they will — that leaves five big holes in the lineup, and even more importantly it’s a huge loss of experience.Luckily, despite rumors and reports that Stepan would leave UW for the New York Rangers after this season, Andy Baggot of Madison.com has reported that Stepan is returning for his junior year.While only Ben Street remains from UW’s last national title team, the experience Stepan, Gardiner and Ramage gained in their gold medal run gives UW three more guys that know what it takes to win it all. Eaves said Stepan’s experience as captain will be especially beneficial.“If you’re dressing 20, you want 20 captains. You want everybody to take a piece of that rope and pull in their own way, accept their role,” Eaves said. “If [Stepan’s] role has accelerated where he’s more of a leader because of his experience, then accept that and do that part.”So for UW fans, it might be a coin flip as to who benefitted more from Team USA’s WJC gold — USA Hockey, or the Badgers.If the last few months are any indication, it doesn’t matter — the future looks bright for both.Adam is a junior majoring in journalism. Did you see any of the WJC games? Let him know at [email protected]last_img