MADISON, Wis. -- After a whirlwind few weeks of nonstop hockey versus the best competition on the planet, played inside a pandemic-prevention bubble in a foreign country, most 20-year-old kids might have welcomed a weekend off.
After winning a gold medal for Team USA on Tuesday evening at the IIHF World Junior Hockey Championships in Edmonton, a trio of Minnesota Gophers had other ideas.
“They’re anxious to play,” Gophers coach Bob Motzko said of defensemen Brock Faber, Jackson LaCombe and Ryan Johnson, who returned to Minnesota on Wednesday evening and left town again, bound for the Gophers’ weekend series at Wisconsin on Friday afternoon. “I told them they had to take the day off (Thursday). I go out on the ice and they’re there so I had to kick them off.”
The three may have expected to quietly drop off their bags at 3M Arena at Mariucci when they arrived from Canada, but their Gophers teammates had other plans. The entire team and staff was waiting in the locker room when Faber, LaCombe and Johnson walked in with their Team USA jerseys and their gold medals to show off.
“We all grew up watching it, so having your teammates go there and win gold is pretty special for all of us,” said Gophers defenseman Ben Brinkman. With Team USA beating Finland in the semifinals and blanking Canada for the title, the American Gophers also admitted there was some good-natured ribbing of teammates Sampo Ranta, from Finland, and Canadian goalies Jack LaFontaine and Justen Close.
“Sampo was pumped even though we beat Finland in the semis. He knew it was a good game,” said Johnson, a sophomore from Irvine, Calif. “And (LaFontaine) was just excited to see the gold I think, and he put on my jersey.”
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It brought back pleasant memories for Motzko, who was an assistant coach for Team USA in 2014 and the head coach in 2017, when the Americans won gold in Canada, and again in 2018. He watched Tuesday’s game at home with his family, and got a surprise visitor when his college-age daughter showed up unannounced just to watch the third period.
Motzko also traded a number of text messages from current NHLers like Troy Terry, Jordan Greenway and Charlie McAvoy, all of whom played for him in 2017. The 2021 version of Team Canada had not lost or even trailed prior to the gold medal game, which the Americans won 2-0 via a shutout from Boston College goalie Spencer Knight.
“That team was dialed in and they showed it in the championship game, because according to all the experts, they didn’t have a chance. They played great, and from start to finish,” said Motzko. “There was some hooting and hollering going on in the Motzko house, that’s for sure.”
Having been down this road as a coach, Motzko said he is cognizant that the players who came directly from Edmonton to Minneapolis to Madison may hit a wall and need rest at some point, probably after the Saturday and Sunday games in Wisconsin.
“They’ve been playing games so they’re in game shape. There’s no question they’re a little tired but their adrenaline will carry them through the weekend,” Motzko said. “I’ve kind of learned that it’s next week that you’ve got to take a couple days and step away. They won’t want to, but we’ll have to force it and see where they’re at.”
One small advantage of being isolated due to the pandemic while in Edmonton is that there was not much to do away from the rink, and the players returned to the college game more rested than they might have been otherwise.
“The whole tournament it was nice in the bubble because we had so much time to rest and had time to recover. In between games we weren’t going out and sightseeing anywhere. Just sitting in our hotel room,” said Johnson, who admitted an eagerness to get back into a maroon and gold jersey and play for the nation’s top-ranked team again. “I think we’re just excited to be back with the team and wanted to go out on the ice, to show the boys that we care about this team and we want to help and contribute any way we can. Even if that means our bodies are a little sore, we’ll get on the ice.”
Johnson also joked that he left his gold medal back in Minneapolis rather than bringing it on the road trip to Madison.
“I’m probably trying not to lose it so I can show it to my parents,” he said.