Photo by Rena Laverty
International hockey is returning to USA Hockey Arena as USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program Under-18 Team is set to host the Five Nations Tournament.
The event runs from Feb. 6-10 and features the best U18 hockey players from Czechia, Finland, Sweden, Switzerland and the United States. The teams will compete in a round-robin schedule throughout the week.
Nick Fohr, the head coach of the U.S. U18 team, is excited to get the chance to play an international tournament on home ice.
“It’s always fun to play in these events and great to represent at these events,” Fohr said. “When you get to do it at home, it’s extra special. For us, everything we do is overseas and the people behind the scenes who do so much work for us — the billet families, the office staff, they do not get to experience that. Now, they get a glimpse of why it means so much for us. It’s always special to share the experience.”
Goaltender Nick Kempf (Chicago, Ill.) understands the impact of playing at USA Hockey Arena.
“It’s super special to play there in general, but for the Five Nations to play the other countries there, it makes it more special,” he said. “I think we will get a lot of support from our fans.”
Defenseman EJ Emery (Compton, Calif.) echoes those sentiments.
“It’s always special to represent your country each day,” he said. “To represent it on our own soil will be pretty cool. We get to go out there and do what we do.”
The United States opens play against Switzerland on Feb. 6 and will play their final game Feb. 10 against Sweden.
Fohr is confident in his team’s ability to score, but he wants to see his players limit scoring chances for their opponents for sustained success at this tournament,
“For me, it is going to be about the little things,” he said. “It’s about our play away from the puck and limiting opportunities. We will give up some opportunities and give up some goals, but we need to minimize. We need to find a balance and do a better job. It’s been our focus the last few weeks.”
The players have gotten the message. Forward and team captain Brodie Ziemer (Hutchinson, Minn.) has been trying to instill a consistent mentality to his teammates each day during practice.
“We need to stick to what our coaches are telling us, and we have to play a full 60 minutes and outwork everyone else,” he said. “It’s having that mentality every single day.”
Emery said playing as a team will be the most important key to success.
“Going into this tournament, we have to be rolling as a team and connected all the way,” he said. “In our previous international tournaments, we have played as a full team and played for each other.”
The U18s have had success in international play, winning the Four Nations this past November. In addition, as members of the U17s, this group won the U17 World Challenge, the Four Nations and the Five Nations tournaments last year.
The U18s head into Five Nations with a 18-11-2-5 (W-L-OTW-OTL) record this season. In addition to the USHL contests, the squad has played against multiple college teams this year. It’s been a busy schedule by design, as Fohr is trying to prepare his team for the big test of the season — the 2024 IIHF Under-18 World Championship this April.
“We definitely do things for a reason — how we scheduled our college games, our travel after the holidays and the opponents we played,” Fohr said. “Our goal was to put us in a situation of a schedule that you might play at the world championship. There are never any easy games.”
Fohr said the main downside of playing this many games during the holidays is a lack of time for the team to train together. The team hasn’t had a full week of practice in six weeks, but Fohr hopes playing against tough competition throughout the past month will pay off in April.
In the short term, the players hope to use these previous games against college teams to their advantage as they return to playing against their own age group in the tournament.
“Overall, my defensive game has grown the most,” Emery said. “When you play against older, stronger and faster guys, it really speeds up the game. You have to think faster. When you go back to playing your own age group, it feels more relaxed.”
Wearing a Team USA sweater is an honor for these players every single game. But Ziemer said the significance of playing in the red, white and blue gets amplified at a tournament like this.
“There is no better feeling,” Ziemer concluded. “You think about how hard you have worked. You think about your brothers out there. It’s very special. There are not enough words to describe it.”
For the full tournament schedule and ticket information, please visit: usahockeyntdp.com/fivenations.
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.