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Kakko scores late, Finland wins third WJC in past six years

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Revenge is sweet, especially when it’s shrouded in gold.

Just ask Finland, who sought out and tasted retribution’s sweet nectar in a thrilling 3-2 win against the United States in the gold medal game at the World Junior Hockey Championship in Vancouver on Saturday.

Kaapo Kakko, who will be high on the draft board in the upcoming the 2019 NHL Draft, scored with 1:26 left in the third period to break a 2-2 tie, giving the Finns their third WJC win in the past six years (fourth total) while simultaneously cementing the Scandinavian nation as the crème de la crème in hockey development over the past several years.

The U.S. seemed to have a limitless number of tools to beat any team put in front of them. If one well ran dry, they could tap into the next, or the one after that. No situation was too tough to handle. No deficit too big.

Coming into Saturday, all of those wells were overflowing. Their speed was too much for anyone not named Sweden to handle, and in the medal round, Sweden was nowhere to be found.

Their power play was tops, operating above 30 percent. Their penalty kill was nearly impenetrable, successful well over 90 percent of the time. And when all else failed, the Americans would just outskate you to death.

Finland knew.

They were beaten convincingly back on Dec. 31, when the Americans trounced them 4-1. What it meant for Finland at the time was simple and daunting: they’d have to through Canada on home soil — a place they had never failed to medal — if they wanted to win their third gold medal in their past six tournaments.

But it was in that game that Finland found their stride. They sent Canada crashing out of the tournament in a 2-1 overtime win. They carried that through to the semis, dispatching Switzerland 6-1 to set up their chance to right the wrong they endured as 2019 neared.

And they were well on their way to that in the third period on Saturday.

Finland opened the scoring in the second period when Jesse Ylonen fired home just after the midway mark of the game. That lead was doubled four minutes into the third period when Otto Latvala let loose to put Finland in the driver’s seat up 2-0.

But a collapse was about to happen.

The Americans reached the final by taking down the Czech Republic 3-1 in the quarters and then edging the Russians 2-1 in the semis.

They were nearly perfect throughout the tournament, only dropping an overtime decision to Sweden in the preliminary round.

They benefitted from ridiculous, undefendable speed, that deadly power play and a penalty kill that only allowed one goal all tournament.

So going down 2-0 wasn’t as daunting as it might seem, and the deficit didn’t last long.

Alexander Chmelevski pulled the U.S. to 2-1 just 61 seconds after Latvala’s insurance marker. With the momentum now swung violently in favor of the Americans, Josh Norris tied the game on a one-time 1:46 after Chmelevski gave the U.S. life, completing the hasty comeback.

The matchup between the two teams wasn’t exactly new. They had met 33 times beforehand, with Finland owning a 16-15-2 record. But they had never met in a gold medal final — somewhat surprising given that both teams are responsible for five of the past nine goal medals.

The U.S. just needed more of the same coming into the game if they were to be successful.

For the Finns, it was about neutering as many of the American’s threats as possible while capitalizing on the momentum they had created for themselves.

The Finns just seemed to want it more.

The U.S. had four power plays inside the first 30 minutes of the game, and five total in the game. That should have been a death sentence for Finland, but instead, the Americans struggled to find opportunities, and when they did, Finland’s best player on the night — goalie Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen — shut the door.

The U.S. went 0-for-5.

Luukkonen was a beast throughout the tournament. The Buffalo Sabres second-round selection in 2017 entered the game with a .933 save percentage, and once again proved his worth in Saturday’s final, turning aside 26 shots.

Kakko, with his late game-winner, was named the player of the game.

The best goalie of the tournament was handed to Russia’s Pyotr Kochetkov, who had a .953 save percentage and a 1.45 goals against average with four wins, including one in the bronze medal game earlier on Saturday.

The best defenseman was Russia’s Alexander Romanov, who had one goal and seven assists in eight games, and the top forward was Team USA’s Ryan Poehling, who finished with five goals and three assists in eight games.

Poehling was also named the tournament’s most valuable player.

2019 WJC All-Star Team:

G: Ukko-Pekka Lukkonen, FIN

D: Alexander Romanov, RUS

D: Erik Brannstrom, SWE

F: Grigori Denisenko, RUS

F: Philipp Kurashev, SUI

F: Ryan Poehling, USA


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

USA hockey executive Jim Johannson died of heart disease

AP Photo/Paul Sancya
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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) Heart disease caused a longtime USA Hockey executive’s death less than three weeks before the Pyeongchang Games.

An autopsy report released Tuesday by the El Paso County Coroner says that 53-year-old Jim Johannson’s death was natural and caused by heart disease.

According to USA Hockey, Johannson died in his sleep on Jan. 21 at his home in Colorado Springs.

Johannson worked for USA Hockey for decades and at the time of his death he was general manager of the U.S. Olympic men’s hockey team. USA Hockey officials have said Johannson relished the chance to put together the men’s team that competed in South Korea.

Noah Welch on Olympics, educating hitters, pledging his brain to science

Photo by TF-Images/TF-Images via Getty Images

The U.S. men’s Olympic hockey teams plays its first game in nine days, but for Noah Welch there’s some business to care of before jetting off to PyeongChang.

On Tuesday, Welch and his Vaxjo Lakers of the Swedish Hockey League will take on Finland’s JYP Jyväskylä in the final of the Champions Hockey League. The following day he’ll get on a plane heading to South Korea.

“It’s still sinking in, to be honest,” Welch told Pro Hockey Talk last week. “I think [it will] when the plane lands, when I get to South Korea. It hasn’t completely sunk in yet.”

Welch is in his seventh season playing in Sweden after a career in North America that saw him suit up 209 times in the AHL and play 75 NHL games with four teams. After establishing himself as a regular defenseman overseas, does he see the Olympics as a stepping stone for a return home?

“For me, no. I don’t think. I’m 35-turning-36. It’s a young man’s game right now in North America,” he said. “I’m comfortable where I’m at in my career and this would be an incredible way for me to go out and win a [Champions Hockey League] championship and then medal in the Olympics and then my team is Sweden has a great chance to win the championship. I’m going to do everything I can to leave it all out there and almost treat this like it’s the last year.”

Welch is one of a number of players on the men’s Olympic roster that has NHL experience. It’s a lineup that has elicited a large amount of “Oh, I remember that guy” responses. But while you might recall the Brighton, Mass. native’s time with the Pittsburgh Penguins, Florida Panthers, Tampa Bay Lightning or Atlanta Thrashers, a decade ago he made news for a unique decision that will help others after his death.

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It was in 2008 that Welch met fellow Harvard alum Chris Nowinski. Nowinski told him about what is now known as the Concussion Legacy Foundation, which he co-founded, and how he was committed to raising awareness and studying the long-term effects of concussions. When the idea of brain donation came up, it was an easy decision for Welch, who was already an organ donor. “I didn’t think much of it, didn’t think it was that big of a deal. I just said ‘yeah, sure,’” he said.

Welch became one of 12 athletes, and the first hockey player, to agree to donate their brains after their deaths.

It’s been 10 years since that decision and there are now 190 pledges from current and former men’s and women’s hockey players, among other athletes, with Ben Lovejoy of the New Jersey Devils the only active NHLer involved. There have been numerous finds since as researchers continue to learn more about chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Welch was way ahead of the game and has seen the impact that the spotlight on concussions in all sports has made.

“Overall, it keeps players safe, especially when it comes to their brain,” he said. “That’s extremely important. On the one hand, hockey players — this is what we sign up for. It’s a physical game, we know we’re going to get injured — part of the job, right? You’ll take an elbow, a shoulder, a knee, all that stuff, but when it comes to your brain, that’s where it gets scary. I think it’s great that there’s more awareness, especially on little things like keeping a guy out for an extra five days, how that can make such a big difference in their recovery period of a first trauma to the brain. Maybe that’s something we didn’t know years ago, where a guy rushes back to make one game that might not be that important gets hit again and now he’s out for a much longer time.

“It’s helping, and that’s great but there’s another side to it, too. Athletes are actually, in some situations, returning to their sport quicker and more prepared than they were before. Maybe they come back a little too early, they’re still foggy and then they’re more vulnerable and then if you get the total time of how long an athlete is out, maybe it could have been a lot less if they just followed the protocol.

“I think, overall, it’s a good thing. Sometimes, maybe, we get a little carried away and everything might be a concussion nowadays. But I guess if you’re going to err, you err on the side of safety when it comes to the brain.”

Welch wouldn’t disclose exactly how many concussions he’s suffered during his career, simply saying “a few.” It’s been so long since he pledged his brain that he was pretty sure that none of his current teammates at Vaxjo are aware of his plans.

In the decade since, Welch has seen progress by sports leagues to minimize head trauma and protect players from returning too early, but there’s still plenty of educating to do.

“I know in the SHL, I think they’ve gone a little too far one way where they’ve taken responsibility out of the puck carrier,” he said. “Now they’ve talked about that the last couple of years and now they’re drawing back a bit. For example, if a guy’s skating up the ice with his head down and it’s a north-south hit, [it’s] hard to kind of aim your shoulder where you can hit a guy. You can just see his body move, it’s one object, just try and hit the middle. Sometimes you might get him in the head, sometimes you might get him in the chest, sometimes you might hit him in the left shoulder, and that’s hard. A lot of those what would be clean hits where your head is down were becoming suspensions just because it was a hit to the head. So the only alternative is to maybe let up, which I don’t know how I feel about that. But that’s something that the league’s are really going through right now. I know in the SHL they’ve drawn back and they’re telling players, puck carriers in particular, you have a responsibility, too, to know what’s going on around you and to pick your head up.

“It’s the east-west hits that are bad, and there’s no room for that in the game. Guy is maybe following his pass and then a guy completely comes blindside. On that play, a player can aim their shoulder. There they can locate where they want to hit the guy. They can get low and hit them in the ribs or his arm, and you can come up high and get him right in the jaw. But when it’s that north-south hit, it’s really hard to identify a particular spot on the opposing player’s body. The game’s so fast. And if he has his head down and you hit his head, it’s like, that’s a good hockey hit. You’re not trying to injure a guy but it’s a good hit and it does send a message. We found in our league in Sweden that a lot of the suspensions this year have actually been [the player getting hit has] has been a lot of young players, like junior guys. So you wonder if because the rules have gone so far one way that they’re not learning now to be more aware. There are some plays where you talk to older, veteran forwards on our team and they’re like I can’t even believe that guy would think about doing that. Everyone knew back in the day when Scott Stevens was on the ice you didn’t go up the middle. Some guys did, and we’ve all watched the YouTube clips.”

Inspired by the NHL, the SHL has been releasing videos explaining suspensions and certain non-suspensions in hopes of educating players the proper way to go about delivering hits.

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This won’t be the first time Welch has represented the U.S. in international competition. Aside from playing several youth tournaments, he was a part of November’s Deutschland Cup, the only games that the American team played before the final roster was announced on Jan. 1. Like his teammates, up until last April, he was fully expecting NHL players to be participating int the Olympic tournament, even after the NHL announced its decision.

“This wasn’t even a thought. It wasn’t even a goal or a dream,” Welch said. “Last time I thought about this was I was probably 10 playing street hockey. A door opened up in the spring. Even after they decided [not to go,] it was always a chance that the NHL players were going to figure out a way. It wasn’t on the radar until just a few months ago.”

It’s turning out to be quite a start to 2018 for Welch between the CHL Final, the Olympics and his Vaxjo Lakers cruising toward a SHL title. Eight years ago he was trying to carve out a regular spot on an NHL roster, now he’s been a mainstay on the blue line for three different organizations in the SHL. He’s not looking for a North America comeback because he’s carved out his place in Sweden.

“[My family and I] always look at it as ‘just temporary,’ like it’s not home for us, but it’s a great place to work and to play,” he said.

MORE: Full Olympic hockey schedule

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

American twins will have some sisterly company at Olympics

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Just call it a sister thing. Whenever another hockey team has sisters on the rosters, Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson and Monique Lamoureux-Morando take notice.

Well, the U.S. Olympians are twins themselves. Combine that with how few sisters play hockey or reach national teams playing internationally, it’s easy enough to notice whenever sisters are dressing up for another country.

”It’s just cool to see,” Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson said.

The Lamoureux sisters will have some sisterly company at the 2018 Pyeongchang Games. Teammate Hannah Brandt’s sister, Marissa, plays for the unified Korean women’s team, and Switzerland has two sets of sisters on the roster with Nina, Isabel and Monika Waidacher, plus twins Laura and Sara Benz. Canada nearly had its own sister act with Sarah and Amy Potomak, though neither made the Olympic team.

Being sisters definitely can provide an edge in hockey.

”When we get the opportunity to be on the ice together, there’s a chemistry that just never goes away,” Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson said. ”It’s always there. So whenever we have an opportunity to have a couple shifts together or if we’re ever put on a unit or line together, it’s always there. And we’ve pushed each other every day whether it’s workouts, during on-ice training, it’s just that accountability that we’ve always had growing up.”

Even though women’s hockey didn’t debut at the Olympics until 1998 in Nagano, playing hockey simply was something the Lamoureux sisters were bound to do. They were born in Fargo, North Dakota, their father, Pierre, played for the University of North Dakota, and all four of their brothers played hockey in college, with Jacque a Hobey Baker finalist in 2009 with Air Force.

The Lamoureux sisters played a year in college at Minnesota before switching to North Dakota for their final three seasons, the last in 2012-13. They have played internationally for the United States since 2006. Both play forward, though Monique also plays defense. Now 28, the sisters credit each other for their long success, which now includes a third Olympic berth.

”That’s part of the reason we’ve pushed ourselves to this level and been competing at this level for quite a long time is that built-in accountability day-in, day-out even if we’re not with the team,” Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson said.

Monique Lamoureux-Davidson calls it the benefit of having grown up together playing every sport together on the same team, even though they haven’t played together on the ice as much as people might think. Coaches have often spread the skill by playing them on separate lines.

”It’s just that thing when we’re on the ice together, we have that undeniable chemistry,” she said.

And the American sisters definitely have an Olympic edge having won silver medals in both 2010 and 2014. Jocelyne has 11 points (two goals, nine assists) in 10 Olympic games, while Monique has 13 points (seven goals, six assists) in the same span. The U.S. women’s team leaves Wednesday for South Korea chasing the gold medal that eluded the Americans in Sochi, where the United States blew a 2-0 lead to Canada in the final.

For Monique, she’s chasing simple fulfillment.

”The last four years we’ve been kind of chasing down this dream of being Olympic champions, and nearly every single day your day is scheduled around being the best athlete you can be,” she said, ”and you change up your plans, you do everything you can to be the best athlete, best leader, best team you can be.”

Jocelyne can’t wait for the opportunity to represent the United States once again in the Olympics with pride the emotion that bubbles up whenever she thinks of the Winter Games. It’s what the sisters have been working for most of their lives. And there’s one ultimate goal.

”It’s gold,” Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson said. ”We’ve come up short the last two Olympics and our ultimate goal is just to play our best. If we can do that, we truly believe we can come out on top.”

More AP Olympic coverage: https://wintergames.ap.org

Follow Teresa M. Walker at http://www.twitter.com/teresamwalker

Matt Gilroy eager to embrace Olympic opportunity for the U.S.

Photo by Wolfgang Fehrmann/Action Plus via Getty Images
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The promise was a simple one: Wherever his athletic career took him, Matt Gilroy would wear No. 97 to honor his brother Timmy. That’s what a 9-year-old Gilroy told his mother after Timmy, who was 8, died following a bicycle accident.

The No. 97 for Timmy and Gilroy’s No. 98 was the result of a compromise after both brothers wanted to wear Wayne Gretzky’s No. 99 while playing youth hockey.

Since Timmy’s death in August 1993, that promise has seen No. 97 worn at Boston University, where Gilroy won the Hobey Baker Award and captained the Terriers to a national championship in 2009. It was on his back during a 225-game NHL career that took him from New York to Ottawa to Florida. It’s been there since he signed to play in the KHL beginning with the 2014-15 season, and it will be there when he represents the United States at the Winter Olympics next month.

“It’s the first thing I do when I go into locker rooms,” Gilroy told Pro Hockey Talk this week. “I always look at the number and my name and it just reminds me of Timmy and how special he was. Now to see it on an Olympic jersey on the Olympic ice will be pretty crazy.”

PyeongChang won’t be the first time Gilroy, who plays in Finland with Jokerit of the Kontinental Hockey League, has represented the U.S. He played at the 2010 World Championship and the 2015 and 2017 Deutschland Cups. Now he’ll get to live out an Olympic dream that he didn’t think was possible until last spring.

“It’s still very exciting,” he said. “I really just can’t wait to get over there and start playing.”

[USA Hockey announces 2018 Olympic men’s roster]

In the two weeks since the U.S. Olympic roster was announced, Gilroy’s phone hasn’t been blowing up like you’d think with well-wishers. It’s been his family who have received most of the congratulations from people in and around their North Bellmore, N.Y. home. He has a theory why that’s been.

“People don’t realize that my phone works over here,” he joked.

Gilroy began talking to USA Hockey in May after the NHL announced it wouldn’t be sending its players to the Olympics for the first time since 1994. While he believes NHL players should be in PyeongChang, he’s embracing the chance to wear the red, white and blue.

“I think everyone who plays hockey, all the guys in the NHL, love where they come from and everyone wants to represent their country at the Olympics,” he said. “I think they should have been allowed to go. Unfortunately, they [aren’t], but fortunately for me I’ve got the opportunity.”

Gilroy will be joined by two Jokerit teammates — Ryan Zapolski and Brian O’Neill — as well as John McCarthy, who is currently playing for the AHL’s San Jose Barracuda. The two have been best friends since rooming together during their freshman year at BU. Their final collegiate season was 2008-09 when they co-captained the team to a national title. Reunited on the U.S. roster will make the Olympic experience even more special for the two.

Right now, the U.S. team has moved from an email chain to a WhatsApp text message thread to keep in touch. Everyone on the roster has some connection to at least one other player, so it won’t be like 25 strangers coming together with a couple of days of practice before game their first game on Feb. 14 against Slovenia.

Ten months ago, none of the players on the U.S. squad were thinking about PyeongChang, but thanks to the NHL, the door swung open for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It’s also a chance for many of them, Gilroy included, to showcase their talents for an even bigger opportunity in the future — an NHL return.

“That’s always in the back of your head,” said Gilroy. “The NHL is the best league in the world. I would do anything to get back there. But then you have to embrace the opportunity of where I am now, the life experience I’ve been able to [have], experiencing playing hockey, playing a game that I’ve played since I was a young kid, which is pretty special.

“The biggest experience is definitely going to the Olympics. If we can put our stamp on the Games as a team and come away with a medal, that would be pretty special for all of us.”

MORE: Full Olympic hockey schedule

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.