Team USA’s 25-man roster at this year’s IIHF World Championship includes six players who played college hockey this season. Three of those were linemates with the No. 7-ranked team in the nation and the Big Ten tournament champion – the University of Michigan Wolverines.
“We were all called at the same time and were really excited,” said Tyler Motte, the right winger on the line. “It had been mentioned before and we had an idea it might happen.”
Having an entire forward line chosen to the Men’s World Championship, which includes some of the best hockey players in the world, is quite unusual, but the way the ‘CCM Line’ tore up NCAA hockey this year was quite unusual, too. Kyle Connor, J.T. Compher and Motte finished first, second and fourth in NCAA men’s ice hockey scoring this season with 71, 63 and 56 points respectively in 38 games.
“We’re all really excited and honored to be here. This is the first World Championship for all of us,” said Compher.
For Compher and Motte, the connection is stronger as the pair has been playing together for three seasons now at Michigan.
“I’ve played with Tyler for a long time now in university, and along with Kyle this past year things went pretty well.”
To say things went pretty well is an understatement. Compher’s and Motte’s statistics ballooned, while Connor put up phenomenal numbers as a freshman – scoring almost a goal and an assist per game to lead all of college hockey in scoring. He was named Big Ten Player of the Year, Rookie of the Year, and all three were finalists for the Hobey Baker Award, which ultimately went to Harvard’s Jimmy Vesey.
“Those are nice awards, but at the end of the day it doesn’t mean anything if the team doesn’t win,” Connor figures, noting that the team was eliminated in the quarterfinals of the NCAA Tournament.
While upset about the loss, he didn’t want to dwell on it, stating, “I have to look at what the next challenge is and work hard at it.”
At the start of the current challenge, the World Championship, U.S. head coach John Hynes did the expected and kept the trio together, but after dropping two of their first three games, changes were bound to be made.
“For the first couple games we (played together) but you know there are so many talented players here that they’re going to shake things up a little bit now and again,” said Motte. “It’s nice playing with guys you’re used to, but at the same time, it’s also really good experience to get the chance to play with some different guys. It’s important to be able to make those adjustments.”
For three games, Motte and Compher played with versatile 34-year-old Matt Hendricks, the captain of Team USA for the second straight year.
“He’s been around the block,” Compher said of Hendricks. “He’s a great guy to learn from, and as the tournament goes on I’ve been able to pick up little things from him.”
In the USA’s 4–0 win over France, it was Hendricks and Motte who set up Compher for his first-ever goal for the U.S. national senior men’s team – it was a bit of a reversal from the norm, as usually Compher is the playmaker and Motte is the shooter.
“Yeah that’s the way it seemed to go this year,” chuckled Compher, who racked up an NCAA-leading 47 assists this season. “But in the past couple years it was more even. This year, Tyler became a real sniper.”
In fact, after scoring nine goals in each of his first two seasons at Michigan, Motte’s total jumped to 32 this season. That ranked second in all of college hockey behind only Connor’s 35.
While the other two played with Hendricks, Connor played with a few different linemates and was a healthy scratch for a couple of games. Finally, the trio was re-united for the last game of the group-stage against Slovakia, with a berth in the quarterfinals at stake.
“I’ve played with them all year so we’re used to each other. It was good to get back into the lineup,” Connor said after the U.S. team earned a single point to advance to the next round. “We knew it was going to be a hard game. Both teams had their lives on the line. We still made some mistakes but at least we got the job done and we’re going to the next round.”
It hasn’t been easy, but all three players are learning from the veteran players around them and getting used to life as professionals, which will serve them well as they embark on their pro careers. Motte has already played a handful of games in the AHL for the Rockford IceHogs after the college season, and all three will be attending their first NHL training camps this fall – Connor with the Winnipeg Jets, Compher with the Colorado Avalanche, and Motte with the Chicago Blackhawks.
“You just learn a little more about being a professional,” Compher explained. “I’m going into my first year as a pro so I want to see what I can do to be a professional player on the ice and the work ethic it takes to be successful.
“This is my first experience with professionals and I’m just trying to do what I can to help the team win hockey games and gain experience heading into my first professional training camp.”
Motte agrees. “It’s the same thing with getting the eight games in in Rockford. It’s getting used to the pace and understanding the lifestyle and what goes into being a professional hockey player. I was excited to get the opportunity to come over here and play, and I’m just trying to learn along the way.”
So does Connor. “It’s a good chance to get familiar with pro players and the pro game and what it takes to get to the next level.”
And just like the Frozen Four, the World Championship is now down to a single-game knockout bracket. After seven games in St. Petersburg, the rest of Team USA’s tournament will be in Moscow, starting with Thursday’s quarterfinal against the Czech Republic. The Michigan trio hopes that they don’t go out in the elite eight again.
“Anything can happen once you get into this kind of single-game elimination round,” Connor said looking ahead. “We’ve got a good team here and we’ll just take it one game at a time.”
Follow Derek O’Brien on Twitter via @Derek_J_OBrien