I did not see this coming. Not the United States winning the World Junior Championships U20 Tournament in a shootout Wednesday night over Canada. I could believe that and felt that the United States had a great chance to win the tournament before it started. No what I didn't see coming was me, a 27 year old male with no personal connection to any player associated with this years roster, loosing control of his emotional control and letting tears of joy flow down Wednesday night as I lay in bed trying to not disturb my sleeping wife. Crying over watching sports has never been a thing I have done (except for shedding a single tear seeing the sunset over the Rose Bowl in 2014) so why would a bunch of talented kids at least 7 years my junior get me so emotional?
Being a hockey player in America at any level presents one with a weird worldview in such a powerful country. Football, basketball and baseball are all much more common and popular sports for a young person to pursue leaving the hockey player always on the outside looking. Sure there are pockets of the country (the 3 M's, New England, New York/PA) where being a hockey player can reach levels of normalcy but you still grow up in a small bubble sheltered from the masses. Growing up this way tends to produce a humble worldview from hockey players (make no mistake we're still athletes so let's not overdue how humble hockey players are) which is rare in America, let alone from competitive athletes.
Football players in America know they are the best in the world, as do basketball players and while baseball has competition from around the world for that distinction they can still feel superior knowing the United States is the birthplace of the game. The hockey player in America grows up anonymous to most of their own country and grows up as the little brother on the world stage to Canada. Canada is this utopia to the American hockey player, Sportscentre leads off with hockey highlights, you are the king of school growing up, your game is featured on the currency and like the big three sports in America, Canada is the birthplace of ice hockey. So, often an American hockey player grows up dreaming over what life must be like in the country to the North and feels a brotherhood or connection stronger to those from another homeland than they do their own.
One problem with these feelings that kicks an American player in the gut? Canadians don't really care that you idolize them and really don't want you to join the group. Granted they do this in a typical "Canada nice" way but go to any tournament across the border as an American team and real quick you'll learn that a warm welcome is short lived. As Kelly Youngblood says to his brother Dean in the 1986 Hollywood classic 'Youngblood' when you come to Canada "to them you're just another wetback coming across the border to play their game". So, 4th or 5th fiddle in your home country and never to be a leader on the world stage the hockey player of the United States can develop quite a perplexing complex that nags at them forever in different ways.
We are extremely defensive (often times to the detriment of the growth of our favorite game in our own country). We are wary to new people coming to the game who didn't deal with the shit we dealt with growing up, we argue against other sports to give ourselves a false sense of superiority and we fight with each other for dominance within our own borders, since seeking the approval of Daddy Canada is a worthless venture. Here needs to come some full disclosure, I'm a Michigan boy born and bred. I think we have a style of hockey here in Michigan that is excellent and I will go to the mat defending our hockey culture against anyone. I am pissed that because there were no Michigan players on the 1980 Miracle on Ice USA Olympic team we missed being a part of the lesson taught in the early scenes of the film. Because there is not just a rivalry between the tough, brash, chirpers from Massachusetts and the humble, speedsters from Minnesota. Michigan has a place at this table too and the rivalry between the three M's is played out at national tournaments each spring and is some of the best drama in the sport.
But that is what we grow up in America doing. As a Michigan boy at a hockey camp I'm going to make sure my stall is near the other Michigan boys. We're going to make sure we compete against kids from other states, make sure we come out on top and if their is a Canadian at the camp we may compete with him too but why? He's going to go home and continue to look down upon little brother so let's just worry about the battles with minds we can change. Which is what made this year's World Junior Championships so so so sweet.
Our American boys went up to Montreal and beat the Canadians two times in one week on their soil. They went undefeated against the best U20 players across the globe and, for at least one day, showed Canada that maybe we can be the leaders in this sport. They represented years of hard work with a new American Development Model geared towards individual skills rather than a system game.
I am 27 now, a beer league player who doesn't have a real competitive game of hockey with real stakes ahead of him for the rest of his life. Perhaps this has made me more introspective but I know that I care about the game more now. I take more pride in the American hockey product and who represents it. That is what hit me all at once when Tyler Parsons, the only Michigan boy on this years roster, made the final save in the shootout to clinch the gold medal for the Americans. I cried for the guys my age who, much more talented than I, laid the groundwork for USA Hockey to reach this point. Thank you to these boys from 10 different states thank you for getting this old timer to cry, and beam with pride for close to 18 hours now. Thank you from all the guys who played before you and more importantly for all the kids who will come after you, thank you for making America proud.