USA Hockey formally announced former NHL defenseman and U.S. Hockey Hall of Famer Phil Housley will be the head coach of the U.S. National Junior Team for the 2013 International Ice Hockey Federation World Junior Championship in Ufa, Russia.
Housley is the 20th head coach for the U.S. National Junior Team and has a unique pedigree in comparing to his predecessors. He’ll be just the second U.S. World Junior coach to have actually played in the tournament (1982, Scott Sandelin is the other). Additionally, he is a 2004 inductee into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame and was inducted into the IIHF Hall of Fame in May.
“It’s a real thrill to have a guy that meant so much to USA Hockey at so many levels on the ice and the knowledge that’s been given back to us for 8-10 years off the ice as a coach,” said Jim Johannson, USA Hockey’s assistant executive director of hockey operations.
Housley will be joined by Mark Osiecki, head coach at Ohio State University and an assistant for the 2010 and 2011 U.S. National Junior Teams, and Grant Potulny, assistant coach at the University of Minnesota, on Team USA’s staff.
More on the hire after the jump.
Team USA’s new bench boss was an assistant for the U.S. National Junior Team in 2011 in Buffalo, where Team USA took bronze. He’s also been an assistant coach at the World U18s and twice at the Men’s World Championships.
That experience as an assistant, as well as that as a player, especially in tournaments in Russia, were huge factors in the selection of Housley according to Johannson.
“Phil has worn the jersey for us in Russia, it’s a different place to play, it’s a different environment,” said Team USA’s GM. “The history as Phil has as a player there will carry over into his coaching.”
Housley will be charged with picking up the pieces after a disastrous seventh-place finish in Alberta last January with a gold-medal winning coach behind the bench. What’s more, Housley will have to do more than Dean Blais did with presumably less talent, but he is looking forward to the challenge.
“I’m so excited to be a part of this,” Housley said. “As a player, being able to wear your country’s colors is an extreme honor. I believe playing in that tournament on the big ice surface, it’s going to be extremely important for our guys to understand the international game at that level.”
There’s no question that USA Hockey is taking a bit of a risk on Housley. His Stillwater Ponies are coming off a 12-11-2 season and have yet to make the Minnesota State Tournament in the U.S. Hockey Hall of Famer’s eight years as a head coach.
However, Housley is obviously a big-name guy. He put up more than 1,200 points in a long NHL career, making him one of the highest-scoring American-born players in the history of the NHL. He made the jump from high school to the pros as a player and has a lifetime of experience to pull from.
Additionally, with a less demanding high school schedule, particularly early in the season, Housley will be able to get a good look at the candidates for the team throughout the season.
“I think [coaching high school is] a huge advantage, because our schedule starts later,” Housley said. “I’ll be able to see a lot of games. I’ve got a little bit more freedom and that’s going to play an important part.”
Housley also said he’d be relying on Osiecki and Potulny heavily, with Ohio State and Minnesota playing against a lot of potential candidates throughout the year.
As Johannson mentioned, Housley is a guy that’s done this before as a player. There shouldn’t be any trouble getting the players’ respect as a guy that’s been through everything from the World Juniors to the Olympics and anything in between.
Housley described himself as an intense, but fair coach.
“What we’re going to be looking at is guys that are going to compete, go to the areas of the ice that people don’t like to go to,” said the U.S. head coach. “We’re going to have be efficient because of the big ice surface. We’re going to be very relentless on the puck and strong positionally. We want to be efficient as we move into the zone and be a puck pressure team as we come back in and take away time and space defensively. Special teams are going to be so important, especially in a short tournament like this. They can win or lose games for you.”
The U.S. has both Canada and Russia in its group in Ufa, which is going to make for a huge challenge right away. Also in the group are Slovakia and Germany, so there really aren’t any “gimme” games in that bunch right there.
The IIHF will switch the format for the tournament in 2014, so the Ufa event will be the last time only three teams make it out of group play, with the first place team getting a bye.
With such a tough schedule, Housley stressed the importance of starting the tournament strong from Day 1.
“You want to get off on the right foot,” Housley said, calling on his experience in numerous international events. “The first game is so important. We’re playing four games in five nights. We’ve got a very difficult group, but I think our guys are going to be ready for the challenge.”
In addition to the tough group, Team USA will have to endure the difficulties of playing in Russia, which are many for the North American player. Ufa doesn’t get much sunlight in the winter, the language barrier plays a factor and the fans will come out in droves. No matter the level, if there’s Россия on the jersey, expect a packed house and expect it to be loud (“SHAIBO! SHAIBO! SHAIBO!”).
Johannson said USA Hockey felt Housley, having experienced the challenges of playing in Russia was the right man to bring the team together in an adverse situation.
“Once you go, you’re all in this together for 20 days,” Johannson said. “We just felt like Phil was a guy that could circle that group and get them to a good place.”
There is definitely pressure on the U.S. team to perform. Having won the last four straight World Under-18 Championships, and medalling two of the last three years at the Juniors, USA Hockey should come to expect positive results.
That said, it’s going to be an awfully tough year with Russia, Canada, Finland and Sweden all rostering fantastic teams. Additionally, the 1994- and 1993-born groups can match the talent level of the last three entries, on paper at least.
This team, with just three potential returnees is going to be inexperienced and perhaps won’t match the depth of some of its opponents. It’s going to be a tough challenge, bot not insurmountable. There’s still a long way between now and December 26.
Phil Housley has performed when his country needed him most many times before. Now he’ll have to find a way to get 22 players to buy in quickly and out-perform expectations in a hostile environment in his first big head-coaching gig. It’s a challenge he sounds ready and willing to take on.