NHL Network’s Steve Mears has called games for Team USA at the World Junior Championship for the last four years. He’ll be on the microphone again this year when the tournament opens in Montreal and Toronto on Dec. 26.
Before heading to Toronto, Mears took a moment to talk to The Hockey Writers about his favorite World Juniors moments and how Team USA projects as they look to grab a medal in their second straight tournament.
The Hockey Writers: What’s the moment that stands apart from everything else during your time calling the tournament?
Steve Mears: It’s got to be the 2013 gold medal. It was just so incredible. Now, looking back on that team, you look at the roster and say, ‘No wonder they won gold.’ It’s just remarkable the number of players who have gotten to the NHL level and are starring at the NHL level.
At the time, we knew some of the guys. They’re all extremely talented. Some of them were highly touted like Seth Jones, like J.T. Miller, but we didn’t know a lot about Shayne Gostisbehere, for example. He was the seventh defenseman at times on that team. And then you find out more about Johnny Gaudreau and more about John Gibson and just how good he is. A lot of guys exceeded their draft position and have continued to do that in the NHL.
I think of how good that team was, especially defensively and the goaltending and you just say, ‘No wonder they won.’ Every single player contributed, from the top scorer to the goaltender. It was a true team effort.
The gold medal game against Sweden, to win it like that after giving up the first goal and then scoring three more. [Vincent] Trocheck scores into the empty net, a St. Clair guy, I remember saying, ‘They’ll be celebrating in upper St. Clair.’ That was another thing for me, the Pittsburgh feel on that team with Gibson, Miller, Trocheck. To have that many players out of that class from my hometown was really cool.
THW: Do you see any of the 2013 team in the 2017 roster?
SM: Absolutely. The forward depth in particular. You have the high-end skill, but not one true superstar. The last few years it’s been so much about Jack Eichel and Auston Matthews. There’s been all this talk surrounding those guys.
Back in 2013, there wasn’t one true superstar going into it. Eventually, Gaudreau emerged, but there’s the similarity. This is such a good collection of high-end talent. All these guys can play and are super skilled. From line one to line four, there’s a whole lot of potential and guys that are putting up points. 10 of 15 forwards at camp either lead their team in goals or points.
THW: How about the defense for the U.S. this year? The 2013 team had a deep blue line, but that’s not necessarily the case this year. Yet, there are still a few guys who could surprise and just maybe aren’t as well known today.
SM: That’s true. But at the same time, you have the guy who is looked at as an anchor and one of the captains in Charlie McAvoy. He’s a returning player and he’s so dynamic.
One of my favorite parts about the World Juniors is watching the progression from one year to another. These players are so young and they’re developing so quickly and they’re learning so much. A couple of years ago it was Jack Eichel from his underage year to Montreal. Zach Werenski from Montreal to Helsinki last year, how much growth he showed. That’s the coolest thing, is to watch these players in just a calendar year, how much better they’ve gotten. I totally expect the same thing with Charlie McAvoy this year. He’s the returnee, a captain, a first-round pick of the Boston Bruins and you can just see it in his game. His poise with the puck, he brings all the elements. He’s got the offensive ability. We saw in summer camp he’s got the physicality. He had that huge hit at the summer evaluation camp in Plymouth.
Taking a look at the defensive pairs early, there is a good mix. Rightie, leftie. Offensive guy, more defensive guy. That, to me, is the best way to construct the defense and it looks like that’s what they’re going for. It looks like a really good balance.
— USA Hockey (@usahockey) December 23, 2016
THW: The 2013 team as a whole stands out, but on an individual basis, what’s a performance that stands out?
SM: Really, John Gibson in 2013. He set Team USA records. He had to be spectacular. This is how tough the World Juniors tournament is: He had to be spectacular and in front of him was a defense with Seth Jones, Jacob Trouba, Shayne Gostisbehere, Connor Murphy and Jake McCabe. It’s ridiculous.
He was spectacular. On an individual basis, he was the MVP of that team. He was the top goaltender that year. That stands out.
As far as forwards, you go back to that season and to Johnny Gaudreau. The way that he turned it up all of a sudden, he came out of nowhere. We’re all wondering who is this little guy and how was he able to just dangle past everybody and make these incredible moves. He can toe drag, he’s got this great shot, he escapes from these much bigger defensemen and nobody can touch him. And now you look at what he’s done in Calgary and the type of start he’s had to his NHL career.
We all know about Johnny Gaudreau. But back then it was so eye opening because I don’t think we’d ever seen a player like that. I’ve always said about him that he’s one of the most unique players in NHL history. There have been smaller players like Martin St. Louis but he was stocky. He had this huge lower body and played with this nastiness. Theo Fleury was the same way. He was a 1,000-penalty minute guy. We’ve never seen a guy who could just float out there and dangle and nobody can touch him. Gaudreau puts up point after point and you just say, ‘How does he do it?’ How is this guy going up against Zdeno Chara and living to tell the tale? He does it time and time again.
THW: Between the 2013 gold and appearances from future superstars like Eichel and Matthews, have you felt a growing audience for the World Juniors in the United States?
SM: Oh, yeah. I think it’s become a tradition now. Especially New Year’s Eve against Canada. New Year’s Eve against Canada is becoming that must-watch event for hockey fans because it’s New Year’s Eve and because of the rivalry.
I think hockey fans know that this is the showcase to see their future stars. Especially in today’s NHL where it’s such a young man’s game. Just look at how players graduate to almost immediately playing to the NHL now. Last year, in the case of [Patrik] Laine and [Jesse] Puljujarvi. Also Auston Matthews and how he starred last year and now jumps in the NHL and scores four goals in his first game. He’s having an incredible year with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Mitch Marner, too.
I think because it’s such a young man’s game, hockey fans have realized now they’re not going to have to wait very long to see these guys on the team. They’re coming really fast. Some have already played in the NHL. Joel Eriksson Ek from Minnesota started the season in the NHL. Blake Speers got a little taste of the NHL with the Devils and is playing for Team Canada. I think that’s the appeal, knowing that you’re seeing you future players on your team because you’re not going to have to wait very long.
You think about Americans coming up like Jack Eichel or Dylan Larkin, whose performance in 2015 was right up there with Gaudreau. Auston Matthews, Matthew Tkachuk. Every American hockey fan knows that the U.S. is a true power in this competition and these are future NHLers. They’re one of the favorites.
At the camp in Buffalo, I was really impressed with the speed and the skill. As we know, today it’s a speed and skill game, but especially at the World Juniors, it’s warp speed. The U.S. has an abundance of that. And that’s without Auston Matthews, Matthew Tkachuk, Christian Fischer, Zach Werenski, who are all still eligible.
— Steve Mears (@MearsyNHL) December 20, 2016
That’s another thing to discuss. The U.S. kind of has this issue now that Canada has had for a number of years where the program is getting so good that players are in the NHL as we speak and aren’t available to play in the tournament. It’s unfortunate if you’re watching the World Juniors, but it’s a great testament to the power of USA Hockey and the strength of the game in the country.