Two University of Minnesota freshmen will end their first semester of college by taking what they have learned at school and represent their home countries.
Swedish forward Leon Bristedt and American defenseman Ryan Collins (Columbus Blue Jackets draft pick) were each named last month to the preliminary roster for their respective Under-20 World Juniors Championship teams. They are joined by sophomore forward Hudson Fasching (Buffalo Sabres).
Although neither freshman has punched his ticket to the tournament, which runs from December 26-January 5 in Toronto and Montreal, Canada, being away from Mariucci Arena and in camp the week before the tournament is a good first step.
"It's such an honor. Having a chance to be part of it last year, but over the years being a part of other teams where there was U17 teams or U16 teams going overseas, it's a tremendous honor," said Minnesota head coach Don Lucia, who coached Team USA to a fifth-place finish in 2014. "You grow up in your country and have pride in your country to represent. It's a once in a lifetime opportunity."
Collins, an 18 year-old from Bloomington, Minnesota, returns to representing the United States wearing the red, white and blue. The 6'5", 204 lbs defenseman spent the previous two seasons playing for the US National Development Program, where he won a gold medal at the 2014 Under-18 World Championships.
"It's amazing," Collins said. "Every time you get an opportunity to wear the USA jersey it's an honor that I don't take for granted."
He's in a battle to make the final 23 man roster. Currently the United States has 8 defensemen in its camp with plans to cut down to seven. The young blue line is a strength for the Americans with 5 of the 10 players who started in camp, including the right-hand shot Collins, being first or second NHL draft picks. Three more could join the ranks next summer.
Bristedt, meanwhile, kind of returns home after six months acclimating in North America. The 5'8", 183 lbs forward is the lone college player on the team's roster, which currently sits at 25 players, including 14 forwards. While he is going to Ottawa for Sweden's camp, being back around his home countrymen combines the return to the European style of hockey the 19 year-old grew up playing with the North American style he has learned at Minnesota. (Plus being back around Team Sweden means Bristedt gets to be eating Swedish food, of course.)
The freshman is cautious about his chances to make the defending silver medalist Sweden, not wanting to celebrate before making the roster. However, Bristedt, who has four points (2G-2A) in 12 games for Minnesota this season, believes he can contribute for his country playing against the best players in the world in his age group.
"I think the coaches have a lot of trust in me and they know I can play the system," he said.
For these guys winter break is less a vacation from 9-4-1 Minnesota and more of an honor and opportunity - if they get the chance - to improve for second semester.
The World Juniors will also be one to show how far each has come since the two were in Lake Placid this past August for their respective evaluation camps. Bristedt and Collins may be playing different roles than they do for the Gophers on different countries, but they're together in their determination on the big stage.
"There's a lot of skill up there, getting to play against guys your own age again. I've played against some of them in the past and there are some skilled players out there," Collins said. "It's always a good challenge defensively to play against guys of that caliber."
Bristedt played against six of his future teammates in August. He vaguely knew who many of the forwards were. At the same time, the Stockholm native made some new acquaintances on the blue line.
"I didn't really know who they were back then," Bristedt said. "I remember (sophomore defenseman Michael Brodzinski) coming up to me and introducing himself, and I was like ‘man who are you?' He said, ‘I'm your teammate next year. Nice to meet you.'"
Four months later Bristedt knows his Minnesota teammates. He and Collins are roommates. That won't stop the two freshmen from possibly again playing one another tomorrow (December 23) in an exhibition game. If they both make their teams, they may also play in the medal rounds.
And if that happens the two Gopher freshmen will be closer together despite wearing different uniforms.
"We've been talking about it. I taught him some Swedish words that he can use," said Bristedt about going against Collins once again, which included the Swedish word for fatass, tjockis (and some other chirps between friends that aren't suitable for an article, he admitted).
"It's just going to be fun."
Nathan Wells is a college hockey columnist for SB Nation. You can also follow him on Twitter -- Follow @gopherstate