SOUTHAVEN, Miss. – Much of USHL Country spent the Labor Day weekend sweltering under hot weather, with temperatures in the 80’s and 90’s in the Midwest. So, what better way to cool off in the heat than to think about hockey on this end-of-summer holiday weekend!
It was a long, but happy Labor Day weekend trip back to the USA for the Dubuque Fighting Saints, the first USHL team to begin competitive exhibition play, and the second league club to ever play overseas.
Dubuque finished off the Junior Club World Cup tournament over the weekend in Omsk, Russia with a bronze medal, defeating Dynamo Shinnik of Belarus 4-1, a game played in the early morning hours of Saturday in the States.
The accomplishment marked the second straight year that a USHL team has claimed a medal in this pre-season tournament. No other country has been represented on the medal stand twice in the fledging international event, now in its third year.
Last year, the Waterloo Black Hawks finished second in the first appearance of a USHL team in overseas competition. The Black Hawks, coached by long-time USHL bench boss P.K. O’Handley, reached the finals before falling to the OHL’s Sudbury Wolves in the championship game.
In addition to bringing back some early-season hardware to eastern Iowa, the experience has to aid the Fighting Saints in their quest to defend the Clark Cup this year.
Coaches use games played before the regular campaign starts to evaluate talent and watch what pairings tend to work best in certain situations. Players are naturally playing to impress, hoping their results will help earn them a spot on the final roster. Only eight players return from last year’s team
Throw in the extra intangible being far away from home and the honor of representing the Red, White, and Blue on truly foreign soil, or in this case, foreign ice, and young players grow up quickly. And all this before the first puck is dropped in games that really count in the standings.
After the bronze medal victory, first-year Dubuque coach Matt Shaw said, “We felt like we got better every day, which was a goal. The team, I think, grew together, which was probably the most important thing when we left Dubuque. The medal was an important thing for the group, but more importantly the group did all the things we wanted to do, which was to grow together and get better every day.”
The players were taking their lessons learned overseas to heart. Second-year Saints’ forward Seamus Malone wrote on his blog for NHL.com. “Here in Russia I am learning a lot, including a lot of great information from our new head coach, Matt Shaw. He helps our structure a lot and reinforces the things we need to do.”
Dubuque defensemen Alexx Privitera scored a hat-trick for the Fighting Saints in that final victory, which helped earn him honors as the JCWC’s best defenseman. In five games, the USHL veteran blue liner scored four goals and added a pair of assists.
ETC.: The eventual champion of the JCWC was the hometown Omsk Hawks. Omsk defeated HPK of Finland in the title game 2-0. Dubuque was the only team to beat Omsk in the tournament, and HPK knocked off the Saints in the semi-finals.
Dubuque received some Hockey Hall of Fame support during the JCWC, as former New York Rangers’ great Rod Gilbert was in Omsk for the event. Gilbert is a friend of team owner Phil Falcone and managing partner Brad Kwong and came to the JCWC at their invitation.
Most USHL teams are now gearing up to begin their exhibition play in the next week. The highlight of the pre-season will be the Fall Classic, now a weeklong series held in two different cities. Western Conference teams will return to the Tyson Events Center in Sioux City, Iowa on September 11-12.
The focus will shift to the Eastern Conference, where teams will play at the Pan Am Pavilion and Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Ind. on September 13-14.
It’s the first time the Classic has taken place in two locations. It’s typically one of the most scouted pre-season events for college and NHL scouts, who will now have to make some quick connections between Iowa and Indiana, or get more scouts and coaches involved to cover the entire week.
The week will be an important one for players hoping to make their teams’ final roster, with the deadline to have a regular season roster set is the day after the end of the Fall Classic’s East event, which is September 15.