USA Hockey sees youth program climb toward top of the heap

In this Sunday, Dec. 17, 2017 photo, United States' Ryan Lindgren, right, checks Kailer Yamamoto during hockey practice in Columbus, Ohio. Expectations will be high when the US under-20 team defends its title on home soil at the World Junior tournament, starting the day after Christmas in Buffalo, N.Y. (AP Photo/Jay LaPrete)

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) In the first 20 years of the world junior hockey championship, Team USA managed two podium finishes good for bronze medals in 1986 and 1992. The American youngsters couldn’t keep up with teams from Canada and other nations where hockey is more deeply woven into the sporting culture.

That has changed. U.S. amateur hockey has caught up and then some.

At the annual tournament for the world’s best players 20 and under, the results reflect the development work and higher profile of a sport that usually plays second fiddle to football, baseball, basketball and more: The Americans have won gold medals three times since 2010, including last January when they beat Canada in a riveting final .

The U.S., however, has never successfully defended a title or been able to win juniors at home. That will be the objective when the 10-nation tournament begins Dec. 26 in Buffalo, New York.

Coach Bob Motzko tried to drive that message home with the players – seven from last year’s gold-medal team – who trained in Ohio this month.

”At our meeting, Coach basically said this is probably one of the best times USA Hockey is going through right now, with the strength of the teams we have, the players in the NHL, the strength of colleges nowadays,” said defenseman Andrew Peeke, who is playing college hockey at Notre Dame . ”It’s just an awesome time.”

Peeke, a second-round draft pick by the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2016, is one of two players on the preliminary roster from Florida, a region not exactly known for producing elite hockey prospects. But the growth of the NHL – Miami and Tampa got teams in the early 1990s – and more media exposure has helped youth hockey make inroads in nontraditional markets in the South and West.

”You look at a kid like Auston Matthews coming from Arizona,” said Blue Jackets defenseman Zach Werenski , regarding his former teammate in World Juniors. Both are just 20 and already established NHL stars.

”Kids coming from all over are playing,” said Werenski, who grew up in suburban Detroit. ”The training and what everyone knows now is way more in-depth on what you need to work on at a young age, the skills you need and just how to play at a fast pace.”

The game has seen tremendous growth in the U.S. since the early 1990s, leading to more rinks, kids getting involved earlier, better instruction and more competitive select leagues. The 555,000 registered hockey players in America this year is up from about 195,000 in 1991, according to USA Hockey. Participation is up 21 percent just in the past decade.

All that means there are more elite players to choose from for the national teams.

”A lot of respect for what some other countries have done, but we feel like we’re going on a great path now,” said Jim Johannson, general manager of the U.S. Junior team. ”We have more depth at every level and any championship we show up to, we feel like we can compete with anybody in the tournament.”

Motzko, who coaches at St. Cloud State in Minnesota, said traditional hockey states in the Northeast and Midwest continue to put the bulk of talented youth players on the ice. A third of the players on the 28-man early roster this time are from Minnesota. But there are also a few from Missouri. Peeke and defenseman Quinn Hughes came from Florida. Forward Kailer Yamamoto, who grew up in Spokane, Washington, has already played in nine NHL games with the Edmonton Oilers. California has been well represented in recent years.

”We’re in strong traditional markets that are still producing players, but it’s fun to see this spread out and grow now,” Motzko said.

Team USA routed Belarus 14-0 on Wednesday and had another exhibition game Friday night against Sweden ahead of the tournament’s opening round next week. The U.S. team has Dec. 29 circled and recircled on the calendar – that’s the day the Americans play Canada in the tournament’s first outdoor game, at New Era Field, home of the Buffalo Bills.

No pressure, right?

”There will be a little bit of pressure knowing you’re the defending champ, but I think it’s kind of more a motivation to want to defend rather than the pressure of it,” Peeke said. ”Especially that it’s on home soil. You want to be able to give people the opportunity to see that we can defend it and cherish the opportunity to defend it.”

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