The home locker room at Yost Ice Arena on the campus of the University of Michigan offered a unique platform from which to view the fortunes of both the United States and Canadian entries in the 2006 World Junior Hockey Championships contested over the recent holidays in three separate cities in British Columbia, Canada.
Four Wolverine players participated in the tourney – center Andrew Cogliano (Edmonton, 1st Rd. ‘05) for Canada, and defensemen Jack Johnson (Carolina, 1st Rd. ‘05) and Mark Mitera (‘06 NHL draft eligible), and left wing Kevin Porter (Phoenix, 4th Rd. ‘04) for the U.S. squad. All but Porter are freshmen at Michigan this season. Porter, who was elected captain of the U.S. WJC team, is in his sophomore season with the Wolverines. Cogliano notched a goal and four assists over his six tournament games. Johnson finished with one goal and five assists. Porter posted a two-goal, four-assist performance and Mitera was scoreless in limited ice time.
Cogliano’s Canadian squad entered the tournament as underdogs despite having won last year, but parlayed a rabid home crowd advantage and inspired medal round play to capture the tournament’s gold medal. The U.S. team, on the other hand, was considered to be the most talented of the national entries participating, but never seemed to be able to find the formula to consistent play and finished fourth overall.
The three American Wolverines flew overnight after their Thursday night final game 4-2 loss against Finland in the bronze medal game arriving back at the Ann Arbor, Michigan, campus at 1 am, the same day in which they would start a two-game series against the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. Cogliano joined his Canadian teammates for a long night of gold medal celebrating and arrived back on campus only three hours prior to that Friday night’s 7:30 pm opening faceoff.
As has often happened in past years, the 2005 WJC saw its share of controversy. Johnson’s late game retaliatory elbow to Canadian Steve Downie in the U.S.-Canada contest almost cost Johnson a suspension and incurred the wrath of the Canadian fans, who heartily cheered the efforts of every U.S. opponent both before and after the incident.
Hockey’s Future was one of three interviewers who spoke with Cogliano, who didn’t stop smiling through the whole interview, and Johnson after their Michigan home game on the night that the group arrived back from British Columbia, and then spoke one-on-one with Mitera and Porter within 48 hours of that arrival.
HF: How hard was it to play tonight?
AC: I’m starting to get sick of hockey a bit. For three weeks, we only had like two days off down there. I just try to get more mentally focused, and I think tomorrow will be a little bit better. I didn’t sleep at all last night, because the team won, so we were out and stuff like that. So it’s been a little bit of a rough night.
HF: You looked strong; you were flying out there.
AC: I don’t know, I guess I was just missing some chances, that’s why I’m trying to make an excuse out. Hopefully when I’m more energized, I can start burying those chances.
HF: The WJC is one of the biggest stages to play on in Canada. Describe how it was as a Canadian.
AC: Unbelievable. We didn’t even leave the hotel. Sutter wouldn’t let us leave the hotel, because people would just be all over us getting autographs and pictures. You could just tell the whole country was behind us. We got letters from every NHL team, wishing us good luck and things like that. It was a big deal. A lot of pressure.
HF: How did it feel playing against college teammates in such a big game?
AC: Good. It was good playing against Porter, Jack. It’s a little different because you’re used to Jack killing guys on other teams. Luckily he didn’t get me. It’s good, we had a good game against the U.S.A. It would have been better if we would have played them in the finals.
HF: The Canadians came in as underdog, What came together for the team?
AC: Coach Sutter really enforced the ‘team,’ team bonding and the team aspect of the game. We never did anything by ourselves – it was always a team thing. Right from the beginning we did a bonding session in Chase, B.C., out in the middle of nowhere, so it was just us practicing. He always told us to check our egos at the door. I think he basically brought us together as a team and led it. He enforced that he was the head and the leader. He did that the year before and he was successful, so I think that was a good way of doing it.
HF: Was it thee best experience of your hockey career?
AC: Yeah. I think a lot us were talking before the final game that this was probably the biggest game of our career so far. Obviously, you say that a lot of the time when you’re playing, but for me that was the biggest part of it. I’m three for three; I’ve won gold in U17, U18 and World Juniors. So I’ve had some big games, but I think that was by far the biggest because it’s not every day you play Russia at GM Place in front of 20,000 people.
HF: Are you looking forward to next year?
AC: Oh yeah. It’s going to be good in Sweden next year. I think it’s going to be an awfully good team; five defensemen are coming back and seven forwards. It’ll be fun.
HF: Where’s the medal now?
AC: I’ve got it here. I brought it to the rink. I didn’t even have a suit; I just came right in my jeans right off the plane. I’ve still got my luggage in Coach (Mel) Pearson’s car.
HF: You got no sleep at all last night?
AC: No. Maybe a half and hour on the plane. I don’t even think I ate anything today; I just had an energy bar.
HF: How does it feel to be back?
JJ: I couldn’t wait to get back after that last game. I’ve been missing the guys. It was the most pumped I’ve been to play a game since I’ve been here.
HF: They were booing you in the WJC, and to come back and having them chanting your name here at Yost – how did that feel?
JJ: It’s fun both ways for me. The booing I think is kind of funny. I had some fun with it. But again, there’s no place like Yost.
HF: You’ve had a lot of international experience, but was this clearly the highest level you’ve played at?
JJ: Definitely the highest level. No doubt.
HF: How hard was it tonight, flying overnight, playing yesterday and all week?
JJ: When you think about it, it’s pretty hard. But I was pretty excited to get back and play with the guys. It makes life a lot easier, knowing I can suit up with these guys.
HF: Are the cuts on your mouth something that happened in the tournament?
JJ: Yeah, I got a stick against Canada and a stick against Russia that split me up a couple of times. I got the top one against Russia and the bottom one against Canada.
HF: I’ve heard a lot of talk about the Russian players taunting last year. Did that happen this year?
JJ: No, they couldn’t speak English. It wasn’t nearly as bad as last year. If it was as bad as last year, I think it would have gotten kind of messy at the end. It wasn’t that bad.
HF: What will you remember from the whole experience?
JJ: Probably just playing in that atmosphere and going into a country where absolutely everyone there is against you. It was fun just being there with the other people that are on your side. The 21 guys in the locker room were pretty special to me.
HF: Why do you think there was so much anti-Americanism?
JJ: I don’t know if I can really give you a straight answer. We were the favorites at the time to win. Obviously, that didn’t pan out. I think whoever was the favorite the Canadians were going to be pretty anti.
HF: How did the legs feel tonight?
JJ: Yeah, they weren’t bad. We got a lot of sleep once we got back and we were able to rest up pretty well. Hopefully we should be even better tomorrow.
HF: Did you take much flack for the penalties?
JJ: Yeah I took a lot. Obviously, the booing and everything for that.
HF: Was the tournament a positive experience despite the result?
MM: It was a good experience, hockey-wise, to match up against the top players of your own age group to see where you stack up.
HF: Are you more tired mentally or physically?
MM: We’re definitely physically tired but also a little mentally, too. The last couple of days have been long days, getting back at 1 am after our last game then coming here and playing two nights in a row against a tough opponent (Alaska-Fairbanks)
HF: You’re young enough to qualify for the tournament next year as well. Looking forward to going back?
MM: It was something to build off of. Just to be invited is a privilege. I’d like to be able to come back and have a bigger role on the team.
HF: The U.S. was pre-tournament favorite yet fell out of the medals completely. What happened?
MM: We just didn’t progress as well as some of the other teams did. Especially later on in the tournament, you have to beat better and better teams to win it. And we just couldn’t do that.
HF: Was team chemistry a problem?
MM: I wouldn’t say it was chemistry. We just got outplayed, especially against the Russians.
HF: You had nearly a whole arena of Canadian fans roaring for your opponents and clearly rooting against you. How difficult was that?
MM: The anti-American environment actually helped us bond together a little more closely. The 22 guys on the team were all that you had out there.
HF: Was the atmosphere a deciding factor?
MM: To be a Canadian and play in front of that crowd was a huge edge to have.
HF: Was the experience all you expected?
KP: It was awesome playing in that environment with those guys and being the captain of that team
was a great experience.
HF: What extra duties did being captain entail?
KP: It was a great honor. The team voted and the coaches also threw in a couple of votes. I led the stretches, kind of kept everything in order, made sure everyone was on time for meals, up on time in the morning, and to practice on time.
HF: Was anything special planned to help with team bonding for a group of guys who hadn’t spent
much time together recently?
KP: We went to Victoria Island, had a camp there for a few days. We just hung out together, played cards, did some things together as a team over Christmas.
HF: How’d the anti-American crowd effect the team?
KP: It was a tough atmosphere to play in. The crowd was always going, and they were always against us. It was fun to play in, actually, but it was a big advantage for the Canadians.
HF: Was team chemistry an issue and what happened?
KP: Team chemistry was alright. I don’t think we always got things flowing soon enough in some games. We never got the momentum we’d have liked. Things just didn’t go our way. Against Russia, they got a few bounces and it took us right out of the game. The Swiss game was tough for us. Canada would have been in the same position that we were if we would have won the Swiss game. We lost to the tournament winners (Canada) on an empty net goal because we needed the win, not a tie, to avoid an extra game in the medal round.
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