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Team USA “Toast of the Town” at U.S. Embassy in Minsk

05/14/2014, 7:45am EDT
By Brian Pinelli

MINSK, Belarus -- Members of the United States Hockey Team were honored guests at a garden reception hosted by government officials at the U.S. Embassy in Minsk on Tuesday evening.

Representing Team USA were Jimmy Hayes, Johnny Gaudreau, Jake McCabe, Connor Murphy and Drew Shore along with Sochi 2014 Olympic silver medalists Julie Chu and Hilary Knight. Four-time Olympic medalist and International Olympic Committee member Angela Ruggiero joined her former Olympic teammates on what was a memorable evening for all. 

Defenseman Jake McCabe – a member of the gold-medal winning 2013 U.S. National Junior Team – said the event was a worthwhile break from hockey.

“It was nice to get away from the rink and talk to people from other countries as well as other Americans here and just see how big of a deal this championship really is over here,” said McCabe, 20. “The city has great pride in their hockey, so it was nice to get celebrated a little bit and share our USA Hockey experience.”    

U.S. Charge’ d’Affaires Ethan Goldrich and U.S. Senator (shadow) from the District of Columbia Paul Strauss warmly welcomed the team to Belarus.

Addressing the players in a short, but poignant opening speech, Goldrich said: “I want you to know how proud we all are to have you here in Belarus, where we don’t get so many American guests, much less than a team full of NHL stars, who have already won two of their first three games.”

Goldrich is the highest-ranking official at the U.S. Embassy. As of 2008, due to restrictions imposed by the Belarusian government, the Embassy was forced to withdraw its ambassador and reduce its staff from 35 to five diplomats.

“Belarus and the United State have our history of disagreements,” Goldrich continued. “I don’t expect that we will solve all our disagreements overnight, but I do think that getting to know each other better, including through sport, we stand a better chance of hearing each other and finding solutions.”

USA Hockey Assistant Executive Director Jim Johansson said that it was a good opportunity for the young players to meet a host of Americans working and living abroad, while also representing the U.S. with numerous foreign guests present. 

“It’s neat to share with the people we have over here representing our government and also good for our players to get out in the community and see the U.S. Embassy people and the relationships that they’re building with contacts from the various other countries,” Johansson said.

While the U.S. guys have been proudly wearing the Red, White and Blue representing their nation at the tournament – the first-ever contested in Belarus – Chu and Knight have been in Minsk taking part in the U.S. Embassy sports envoy program, teaching hockey and sport to young Belarusian students and athletes.

“It’s nice to see programs outside of what USA Hockey does or the IIHF does, working and exposing the game and sport to more boys and girls and we can’t pick better representatives to bring that message out,” Johansson said about the U.S. Olympic medalists. 

Also present, on what was a sunny and pleasant early Tuesday evening, were government officials from various nations, including Great Britain, Latvia, Kazakhstan, Slovakia and Sweden; guests from the Belarusian Ministry of Sport and Ministry of Tourism and Foreign Affairs; Belarusian freestyle skiing Olympic medalists and local media.

Thanks to the efforts of the staff at the U.S. Embassy, the occasion was an enjoyable, cultural, and thought-provoking experience for all who were fortunate to attend.

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Date  Opponent  Result
Fri., May 9 Belarus W, 6-1
Sat., May 10 Switzerland W, 3-2
Mon., May 12 Russia L, 1-6
Thu., May 15 Latvia L, 5-6
Fri., May 16 Kazakhstan W, 4-3 (OT)
Sun., May 18 Finland W, 3-1
Tue., May 20 Germany W, 5-4
Thu., May 22 Czech Republic
(Quarterfinals)
L, 3-4

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HELSINKI, Finland -- In anticipation of tomorrow’s quarterfinal against host Finland (11:30 a.m. ET on NBC Sports Network in U.S.), Team USA exuded calm and confidence while speaking to the media following Wednesday’s practice at Hartwall Arena. 

It is evident that the youthful group, with an average age of just over 25, has relished its recent time spent together, bonding and quickly developing chemistry on the ice here in Finland.

“A lot of us have known each other for a long time, whether it’s playing with or against each other, so it’s been fun to get together in a tournament like this,” said U.S. captain Jack Johnson, who is playing in the world championship for the fifth time. “It kind of reminds me of the 2010 Olympic Team where no one expected us to do anything there, and everyone was willing to do whatever it took to win. We’re a real similar team.”

Defenseman Cam Fowler, who scored his first goal of the tournament on a slick give-and-go with Paul Stastny in last night’s 5-2 victory over Switzerland, echoed similar sentiments.

"It’s tough to kind of mold together when you only have a week of practice,” said Fowler. “I think at the world juniors and here, we’ve done a great job of doing that. I think it’s just the personalities of the guys we have and coming forward toward the same goal. Now we know what we have to do moving forward.”

Along with a third period tally by Chris Butler, Fowler and Butler became the 16th and 17th U.S. players to score a goal at the 2012 IIHF World Championship.

“Our game plan is really bringing everyone into the offense, whether it be different lines or the defense,” said Max Pacioretty, who with 12 points (2-10) in seven games leads Team USA. “We try to include all five players in the offensive zone and that’s how we put pucks in the net.”

“It’s tough to rely solely on one line or a couple of players,” said Johnson. “Fortunately for us, that’s not the case right now. Nobody cares who gets the credit and when you have a group of guys like this it’s a special thing.”

“Our defense has a lot to do with that, jumping in all the time and helping out us forwards,” said Stastny, about the team’s balanced scoring. “All the guys are clicking and we are successful when all four lines have good puck possession down low.”

Justin Faulk, the youngest player on the squad at 20-years old, has been an offensive force on the blue line, displaying poise and maturity. The young talent is tied for third among all defensemen in the tournament with seven points (4-3). 

“Everyone is playing well together, finding each other and no one is being too selfish out there,” said the Carolina Hurricane defenseman. “Our defense has been chipping in and jumping into the rush and that’s been huge for us.”

Under Head Coach Scott Gordon, the U.S. concluded the preliminary round at 6-1, marking only the second time in history (1939), Team USA has won six of its first seven games in the world championship.

Starting in goal for the Finns Thursday will be Petri Vehanen. Dallas Star Kari Lehtonen suffered a lower body injury in the latter half of the third period in Sunday’s game against the U.S. and  did not practice Wednesday.

“It doesn’t matter who they play in goal,” said Stastny, who had three goals and nine assists in the preliminary round. “Every goalie is good at this point. Plain and simple, you have to get in front of them, make them move and get second chances.”

With high expectations playing in front of the home crowd in what is a hockey-crazed nation, the pressure will surely be on the defending World Champion Finns come Thursday.

“Obviously, they’re probably feeling the pressure being their home tournament, but I don’t think its any real advantage in a one-game knockout where anything can happen,” said Johnson.

“We know we’re playing a completely different game and you can throw away the last one,” said Pacioretty. “They’re going to come out a lot hungrier and it’s going to be a battle. It will be a crazy barn to play in.”

For Team USA, expectations have grown as they’ve steadily progressed as a unit in Helsinki. The last American medal at a World Championship came in 2004, when they claimed bronze in Prague, Czech Republic, and it’s been 52 years since the U.S. has captured a world title.

“This team has the potential to do great in this tournament,” said Johnson. “We’re just here to have fun and we’re here to win it.”

“We know USA hasn’t done too well at the world championships and if we do well here the sport will continue growing in the U.S.,” added Stastny. “We’re here for a reason – we’re here to win. Tomorrow is such a big game for us and that’s why we’re so excited.”

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