By Craig Stancher [USA Hockey]
As the 2007 U.S. University Select Team heads to Torino, Italy, to compete at the Winter World University Games beginning this week, not every player on the roster will be wearing a USA jersey for the first time.
Joel Kuehn (Troy, Mich./University of Michigan Dearborn), who was a member of the 2005 U.S. University Select team that competed at the biannual event in Innsbruck, Austria, is returning as part of Team USA’s lineup again this year. The 2005 U.S. University Select Team finished with a 3-3-0 record, Team USA’s best finish since returning to the Games in 2001 with players from the American Collegiate Hockey Association.
The road to the 2007 Winter World University Games started with a USA Hockey Identification Camp in Columbus, Ohio, during August. A total of 93 of the ACHA’s finest players were invited to the camp, with each having hopes of cracking Team USA’s roster.
Kuehn felt as if he played well enough at the Identification Camp to earn a spot on this year’s team, but knew it didn’t guarantee a thing until he received a phone call assuring his inclusion on the squad. In early October – a few weeks before the announcement of the team’s roster – Kuehn was informed by his coach at the University of Michigan Dearborn (and U.S. University Select Team assistant coach), Dave Debol, that he had most likely played his way onto the roster.
“I was pretty confident since I played well in Innsbruck, but I also wasn’t taking anything for granted. When I finally got the call and learned that I had made the team I took a deep breath and a sigh of relief. It was definitely a great feeling.”
Now that he’s once again a member of Team USA, Kuehn is helping the young group of players in any way he can. As opposed to the 2005 team, which didn’t have any veterans returning from the previous tournament, this year’s squad has both Kuehn and Nick Krebsbach (Minot, N.D./North Dakota State University) as returnees to help guide the way, something Kuehn sees as mutually beneficial.
“I think it will help my own game, knowing what to expect when we get on the ice. It also helps the team to have someone to look to. I’m definitely trying to take a leadership role by telling the guys what it’s going to be like over there and answering any questions they have.”
That attitude didn’t go unnoticed by Team USA Head Coach Chad Cassel (Champaign, Ill./University of Illinois), who named Kuehn an assistant captain prior to the squad’s 1-0 exhibition win over West Virginia on Saturday (Jan. 13) in Laurel, MD.
While the allures of Italian culture and its fine cuisine could be a distraction to some, Kuehn has kept focused with one goal in mind: Helping Team USA to another strong finish in this year’s tournament. In particular, he’s looking forward to the team’s opening game against the talented Canadian squad.
“I’m excited to play Canada. I think it’s every kid’s dream when he’s growing up playing street hockey to be a member of Team USA playing against Canada. I’m really looking forward to it.”
Following the game against Canada, the United States’ schedule doesn’t get any easier, with perennial powerhouses such as Slovakia and Russia on tap. Some might look at it as a tough draw, but Kuehn views it as an opportunity.
“I think it could work out well for us. If we can sneak up on Canada and Russia and make it to the medal round, we could be in good shape.”
Kuehn, who led the 2005 Winter World University Games in shots on goal, will be looked to by Cassel and his teammates to expand his role from being an offensive threat to providing a presence as a team leader, both in the lockerroom and on the ice. Now considered a veteran of the tournament, Kuehn passed along a few words of wisdom to his new teammates as they prepared to head overseas for the start of the Games.
“Just play your game. Do what you do best. Dump the puck in, skate hard and forecheck hard. A lot of people have been hearing how good these teams are, and it can be intimidating, but just play your game.”