When Nate Leaman was selected last March to coach the US men’s hockey team in the World Junior Championships, he knew there would be challenges. The Providence College coach had worked with USA Hockey in the tournament previously, having served as an assistant coach in 2007 and 2009, so he had an idea of what was to come.
Yet just days after he was announced, the COVID-19 pandemic gripped the country, creating a whole new set of obstacles that Leaman and the team would eventually be able to overcome to win the gold medal earlier this month in Edmonton.
“This is a huge tournament around the world,” said Leaman. “It’s a big money-making event for the IIHF, so I didn’t have doubts about coaching. But there were times when I definitely got frustrated. Having something planned and then having to rework it, that’s just any business that anyone’s in right now in the times that we’re living in. You’ve got be flexible.”
By the middle of May, Leaman had assembled his coaching staff, which included Harvard head coach Ted Donato, who checked off a lot of boxes.
“First and foremost, we needed someone that was good on the power play, and Harvard has been really good on the power play,” said Leaman. “Second of all, Teddy is someone that I have always hung out with a little bit in recruiting. I knew we would get along; obviously that’s a big part of it.
“The third part of it was you needed someone else that was a head coach in case I had COVID. But really the key was someone to work with the forwards, and someone to work with the power play. Teddy’s really good at both of those.”
Initial plans called for a four-team camp over the summer that would include Finland, Sweden, and Canada. That was scrapped, and the hope then was to work with two other countries. When that fell through, the US program tried to set up something with Finland, to no avail. Even an attempt to conduct a US camp by itself would prove to be fruitless.
Eventually, the decision was made to hold an evaluation camp in October, which was possible because the college season was delayed. It ran for five days, after which many of the players and coaches returned to their college teams. Meanwhile, teams in Europe continued to work together, while Canada assembled its players for a four-week camp beginning Nov. 16.
“The hard part was the tournament protocol was difficult to meet because we had so many guys coming from different places, whereas Canada brought all of their guys for a month there,” said Leaman. “They could stabilize their guys because they weren’t playing.”
The US team would not reconvene until Dec. 6 for a one-week camp in Plymouth, Mich., with a pair of unfortunate announcements bookending the experience. As the team began to arrive, it was announced that because of a positive test in the Boston University program, Robert Mastrosimone, Alex Vlasic, and Drew Commesso would not be available.
The feeling of disappointment would rear its head again on the final day of camp when John Beecher, the Bruins’ 2019 first-round pick, tested positive. Both Beecher and his roommate, Sharks prospect Thomas Bordelau, were released from camp, a development that still bothers Leaman.
“I was pretty bummed when the BU kids weren’t able to participate in the final evaluation camp,” said Leaman. “The Beecher and Bordelau situation was really hard, because Beecher was a false positive, and there was no real protocol for a false positive. I was more upset with myself for not having a plan in place in case there was a false positive.”
The first practice after the two were dismissed was a quiet one.
“We had to really pick the guys up,” said Leaman. “We spent a little time doing that, but the focus was always there. The kids want to win gold. They want to play hockey.
“That was the big thing of this tournament. There were a lot of guys coming into it that this was the beginning of their season, so they were revved up, ready to go, ultra-focused.”
The team had been isolated all week, then left for the tournament Dec. 13. It continued to operate in a bubble with the rest of field in Edmonton for the next three weeks. That meant being away from family and friends for more than a month, including the holidays.
Leaman knew when he accepted the position that it would mean he would not be with his family for Christmas.
“The one drawback of the tournament was not being around your family,” said Leaman. “I have three boys, and I wanted them to experience the tournament because it’s a big deal, it’s a big thing.”
After a rough opening loss to Russia, the US rebounded by winning its next three games to finish first in its group. Along the way, the Americans received encouragement via Zoom from NHL figures and Team USA alums, including Lightning assistant coach Derek Lalonde, Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane, Bruins defenseman Charlie McAvoy, and Red Wings captain Dylan Larkin.
Lalonde, a teammate of Leaman’s in college, spoke with the team about playing in a bubble, and Tampa Bay’s road to the Stanley Cup.
“They all had great insight,” said Leaman. “Patrick Kane talked about how important it was to be a team, and playing together as a group of five. Charlie McAvoy talked about how important it is to fill each other’s tank and be positive. Dylan Larkin talked about how much he enjoyed these games, and to go after it.
“All messages that resonated with our players. We also did some team Zoom calls that I thought were really good.”
Leaman praised the team’s chemistry, citing a play by Millis native and Boston College sophomore Matt Boldy in the semifinal win over Finland. With the US clinging to a 4-3 lead in the waning moments, Boldy sprawled onto the ice to block a slapshot, firing up his teammates in the process.
“The reaction is like a goal reaction,” said Leaman. “Guys go over and pat him on the head, and they kind of hug afterward. That’s a goal reaction. That to me tells you that the guys are willing to do it for each other. They’re committed to each other.”
After holding on for the win, the US was back at it the next night to face a Canada squad that had outscored opponents, 41-4, in the six games leading up to the championship. Leaman credited Kris Mayotte, who was part of his staff at Providence for four seasons before joining Michigan in 2019, for coming up with the game plans each night.
“We knew our game plan going in,” said Leaman. “I have to give Kris Mayotte the credit. I was very fortunate to have an unbelievable staff at the tournament.”
In the final, the US took the lead in the first period. Tournament MVP Trevor Zegras, who played at BU last season, extended it to 2-0 in the opening minute of the second period.
That would be more than enough for goalie Spencer Knight. The BC sophomore stood tall in net, recording 34 saves for his third shutout of the tournament and securing the gold.
The next day, the team said its goodbyes and returned home, where Leaman was unable to hold on to his medal for long.
“The kids hijacked it,” Leaman said with a laugh. “They took it to their teams’ practices.”
His focus now on his duties at Providence, Leaman will be back behind the Friars bench for this weekend’s series against Maine. With Ron Rolston at the helm, the team went 4-2-2 in Leaman’s absence.
“We’re in a really unique spot that I have an assistant coach the caliber of Ron Rolston,” said Leaman. “He could be the head coach of any program in the country. I left the program, and we were 0-2. He worked us back into a good spot.”
NU is down a coach
Northeastern (6-3-2) finds itself in a similar situation, as coach Jim Madigan will miss this weekend’s series with BC (6-2) while he quarantines after a COVID “close contact, non-player.”
Associate head coach Jerry Keefe was behind the bench for Wednesday’s 7-0 win over UNH.
“It was a little nerve-racking, because you don’t want to mess it up,” said Keefe. “I think the whole staff felt that way. We missed him, and we talked about that afterwards. I know the guys felt it was important to get the win for him.”
BC coach Jerry York said the Eagles will likely be without forward Alex Newhook, who injured his shoulder, but added that forward Logan Hutsko, who missed last weekend’s series with UNH with an ankle injury, could be back.
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