United States center NICK BJUGSTAD (14), the 19th overall pick of the Florida Panthers at the 2010 National Hockey League Draft who earned a bronze medal at the 2011 IIHF World Junior Championships, led the powerful University of Minnesota in goal-scoring during this 2012/13 NCAA campaign before appearing in all of his team’s ten games this spring at the 2013 IIHF World Championships in Scandinavia.
When it comes to the UNITED STATES’ entry at the annual IIHF World Championships, the matter is never merely a question of what National Hockey League players are available. Rather, the equation must always factor in exactly which NHLers are, indeed, willing to participate. Whereas the Europeans have traditionally always viewed national team duty as an honor, many top-shelf North American professionals have often considered major international tournaments — with the possible exception of the Winter Olympic Games — to be something more akin to an actual burden.
Not so in the case of college players, who are, traditionally speaking, always ready to step into the breach. Last season, the American entry at the annual IIHF World Championships contained no college players for the first time in seven years but this spring the United States squad led by head coach JOE SACCO featured no fewer than four skaters who spent the bulk of the 2012/13 campaign competing at the NCAA level. Sacco, of course, was a college player at Boston University before going on to skate in 738 National Hockey League games (94 go, 213 pts), himself.
Three of these four recruits actually signed professional contracts after appearing in the annual NCAA tournament with their respective college teams this spring. SCOTT BJUGSTAD from the University of Minnesota (40 ga, 21 go, 36 pts) went on to skate in 11 NHL games (1 go, 0 as) for the Florida Panthers while DREW LEBLANC from St. Cloud State (42 ga, 13 go, 50 pts), the senior center out of Hermantown, Minnesota, who was lauded as the nation’s most outstanding college hockey player this term, made two appearances for the would-be Stanley Cup champion Chicago Black Hawks at the tail end of the strike-shortened 2013 NHL regular season. DANNY KRISTO from the University of North Dakota (40 ga, 26 go, 52 pts), the senior right wing out of Eden Prairie, Minnesota, who was the second round choice (# 56 overall) of the Montreal Canadiens at the 2008 NHL Draft, skated nine games with the Hamilton Bulldogs in the American Hockey League before flying off to Finland.
JACOB TROUBA from the University of Michigan (37 ga, 12 go, 29 pts) also agreed to professional terms after the Wolverines failed to make the NCAA tournament cut for the first time in more than two decades. The 19-year-old Trouba was honored by tournament officials as the Best Defenseman while helping the United States to the gold medal at the annual IIHF World Junior Championships this past winter but did not appear in any National Hockey League games after being signed by the Winnipeg Jets in early April. Trouba, to review, was the ninth overall player taken at the 2012 NHL Draft.
United States defenseman JACOB TROUBA (8) from the University of Michigan harasses Switzerland winger DENIS HOLLENTSTEIN (70) of EHC Kloten during the 2013 IIHF World Championships semifinal contest watched by an audience of 7,136 spectators at the Globe Arena in Stockholm, Sweden.
Not since the 1995 IIHF World Championships held in Sweden have the United States had more than four players who spent the bulk of the season in the collegiate ranks on the roster at any major international tournament. On that occasion almost two decades ago, the U.S.A. contingent iced six NCAA players including University of Vermont sophomore goaltender TIM THOMAS and University of Wisconsin senior defenseman BRIAN RAFALSKI. Oddly enough, both Rafalski and Thomas began their professional careers by signing for clubs in Scandinavia but, ultimately, would to North America and experience the thrill of lifting the treasured Stanley Cup in the vaunted National Hockey League.
Along with three other collegians, Thomas would also be named to the American squad for the IIHF World Championships the very next season by incoming United States head coach RON WILSON, then in charge of the Anaheim Mighty Ducks in the NHL, as well. Joined there in Vienna, Austria, by the University of Minnesota pair of senior center BRIAN BONIN and sophomore defenseman MIKE CROWLEY in addition to Lake Superior State sophomore goaltender JOHN GRAHAME, the surprising U.S.A. team finished third and, in doing so, earned a medal at the annual IIHF event for the first time in 34 years. Bonin, to review, was the recipient of the 1996 Hobey Baker Memorial Award given to the nation’s most outstanding college hockey player.
Over the past twenty years, several Americans have appeared at the annual IIHF World Championships after playing NCAA college hockey that same season more than once in their careers; such repeat collegiate performers from this distinct group include center CHRIS DRURY (Boston University), defenseman MIKE MOTTAU (Boston College), right wing BRIAN GIONTA (Boston College), goaltender RYAN MILLER (Michigan State) and left wing CHRIS KREIDER (Boston College).
United States right wing CRAIG SMITH of the Nashville Predators finished third on the scoring chart for all players at this year’s IIHF World Championships by notching 14 points (4 go, 10 as) in ten games; indeed, Smith had cut his senior international teeth for the U.S.A. two years ago at the 2011 IIHF World Championships in Slovakia (7 ga, 3 go, 6 pts) after spending the entire 2010/11 campaign competing at the NCAA level on behalf of the University of Wisconsin (41 ga, 19 go, 43 pts).
United States center DREW LEBLANC (21) of the Chicago Black Hawks, shields the puck from Germany center MARCUS KINK (17) of Adler Mannheim during the 2013 IIHF World Championships – Group H match watched by a crowd of 11,057 spectators at the Hartwall Arena in Helsinki, Finland.