Stillwater boys’ hockey coach Phil Housley guided Team USA to a gold medal at the International Ice Hockey Federation World Junior Championships after topping Sweden 3-1 in Saturday’s championship game in Ufa, Russia.
It was a productive three weeks away from the Ponies for the former NHL star, who coached the Americans to just their third gold medal in this event since its inception in 1977. Playing seven games in 10 days, Team USA suffered one-goal losses to Russia and Canada in pool play, but qualified for the medal round with a 9-3 victory over Slovakia and followed with consecutive victories over the Czech Republic (7-0), Canada (5-1) and Sweden (3-1) to capture the title.
“I don’t think people realize how hard it is to win a gold medal,” Housley said. “It’s something where these guys don’t realize what kind of an opportunity they just achieved, but it will remain with them the rest of their lives.
“The guys from Day 1 since we met in New York were really focused. A lot of guys had to play different roles coming in from their respective teams and they just bought into our team game plan. You can’t win a championship if not everybody is thinking the same way or pulling the same rope. They bought into what we were telling them and it transferred into a championship. That’s one of the things I’m most proud of is these guys sacrificing their bodies and doing whatever it took for the team — and ultimately they got rewarded for it. It’s just an incredible feeling.”
The tournament annually features the best players under the age of 20 in the world and this year’s field was bolstered by several players — especially for Team Canada — who were available to play because of the NHL lockout.
“They had like 15 first-round picks,” Housley said. “Most teams had their best players that were available.”
Housley was able to keep tabs on the Ponies, who played well with coaches Pete Hamilton and Matt Doman leading the way in Housley’s absence.
“I kept getting updates from the coaches and was able to stay on top of things, but not as far as any input. The coaches did a great job while I was gone,” Housley said.
In fact it was a stingy defense that allowed Team USA to be successful, a formula that has also been a focus for the Ponies the past few years. Stillwater is allowing less than two goals per game this season and no other team in the league is allowing fewer than three per contest. In Russia, Team USA allowed just nine goals in seven games.
“It’s a commitment to defense and we talked about it a lot,” said Housley, a defenseman in the NHL for 21 seasons. “Even though we had the most goals in the tournament, you make a commitment and it springboards your transition game and your scoring chances. Our guys did a terrific job, especially our leadership group. We really had the guys buy into it and our goaltending from John Gibson was outstanding.”
Housley previously served as an assistant coach at the World Junior Championships in 2007 and 2011. During his playing career, the South St. Paul product played for seven U.S. national teams and also contributed to a silver medal effort in the 2002 Winter Olympics.
The gold medal performance has also led to speculation in some corners about not only Housley’s continuing efforts with USA Hockey and its national teams, but also potential opportunities in professional hockey — not that he’s wasting any time with those thoughts as he re-focuses on the Ponies for the second half of the season.
“I think being part of the 2007 and 2011 junior teams and the national team 2011 as an assistant helped with my experience and certainly this experience is going to help, in what way remains to be seen,” the coach said. “I’m just going to focus on Stillwater and we’ve got a lot of work to do. I’m excited about the rest of this year. After the season, those are things to think about, but right now the focus is on Stillwater and these kids.”