USA Hockey sees youth program climb toward top of the heap

In this Dec. 17, photo, United States' Patrick Harper, left, and Trent Frederic battle for a loose puck during hockey practice in Columbus, Ohio. Expectations will be high when the US under-20 team defends its title on home soil at the World Junior tournament, starting the day after Christmas in Buffalo, N.Y. (AP photo)


AP Sports Writer

COLUMBUS, Ohio — In the first 20 years of the world junior hockey championship, Team USA managed two podium finishes good for bronze medals in 1986 and 1992. The American youngsters couldn’t keep up with teams from Canada and other nations where hockey is more deeply woven into the sporting culture.

That has changed. U.S. amateur hockey has caught up and then some.

At the annual tournament for the world’s best players 20 and under, the results reflect the development work and higher profile of a sport that usually plays second fiddle to football, baseball, basketball and more.

The Americans have won gold medals three times since 2010, including last January when they beat Canada in a riveting final .

The U.S., however, has never successfully defended a title or been able to win juniors at home. That will be the objective when the 10-nation tournament begins Dec. 26 in Buffalo, New York.

Coach Bob Motzko tried to drive that message home with the players — seven from last year’s gold-medal team — who trained in Ohio this month.

“At our meeting, Coach basically said this is probably one of the best times USA Hockey is going through right now, with the strength of the teams we have, the players in the NHL, the strength of colleges nowadays,” said defenseman Andrew Peeke, who is playing college hockey at Notre Dame . “It’s just an awesome time.