The end of the Fall semester brings a few weeks of relaxation and unwinding for students at Notre Dame. While they're still in season, even the hockey team gets some time off to go home and spend Christmas with families and friends. Three members of the team unfortunately couldn't spend those off days at home in front of a crackling fire while the aromas of cinnamon and pine filled the house.
Anders Bjork, junior forward, Dave Gilbert, equipment manager, and Nick Siergiej, director of hockey operations, spent their Christmas holidays abroad in Helsinki, Finland representing the Land of the Free in the World Junior Championship (WJC). Bjork is one Notre Dame player in a long line of many to be called up to Team USA for the WJC.
Other members currently on the Notre Dame roster who have attended the annual event are Mario Lucia and Tommy DiPauli. Lucia won a gold medal with the team in January 2013 in Russia; DiPauli, along with former Notre Dame forward Vince Hinostroza, played on the 2014 team in Sweden.
Bjork received encouraging words and fond recollections from Lucia and DiPauli before he left for his own Scandinavian venture.
"They both gave me good advice and told me, 'Don't be shy. Don't be nervous. Just go out there, play your game, and play hard. Do the little things right. All these players are going to be good, so you've got to make an impact, so do whatever it takes," he said. "They told me how great of an experience it was for them, so kind of gave me some extra motivation to make that team, try my best in pre-camp, and everything."
The trip was not Bjork's first time to Finland. He'd been before with development teams, but he was excited to return. He said it was difficult to be away from his family for Christmas, but he tried to talk to them every day so that the distance didn't feel as isolating. Admittedly, the experience of being on the national team is worth the sacrifice, though.
"It was a dream come true for me, but I think it also helped me hockey-wise learning things from the coaching staff. Mentally, I feel now that playing some of the top players in the world and realizing that those guys are freakishly good, but I can play with them, has helped my confidence a lot. It just helped me believe in myself, which I think has helped my game already and will definitely help me in the future."
Since returning, flashes of his new confidence have been apparent and Bjork has reestablished himself as one of the top scorers on the Notre Dame squad.
Bjork had some very familiar faces travelling with him. Dave Gilbert and Nick Siergiej were both called up by the team as well to serve in essentially the same roles for the national team that they've been serving at Notre Dame for years.
Gilbert was first to receive the call from Scott Aldrich, the equipment manager for USA Hockey. For Gilbert, the opportunity was one he did not want to pass up, and it the offer, as alluring as it was, brought concern. "I'll be honest with you," he said, "The team I was most worried about was my family. Three weeks from home is a long time, especially over the holidays. But my wife was completely supportive and she was awesome. She didn't even bat an eye at it. She knew it was a cool opportunity and something that I'd always thought about doing." With his wife's support and the go-ahead from head coach Jeff Jackson, Gilbert took the job and began work with a second team.
His work began early, but was fairly light for a while. Beginning with phone calls and emails, Gilbert started to collect information about equipment sizes and preferences for the players on the national team roster so that they could start placing orders. He had to make some slight changes to his personal system of organization because of the unfamiliarity with the players he was working with. "For us, I do the backup sticks by number. There, I had to do them by alphabetical order because I had no clue what numbers went with names." The accumulation of practices increased familiarity and soon, names and numbers were no longer an issue.
Like Bjork, Gilbert had been to Finland before, but not for two decades. He'd been along with Coach Jackson, also with the national team, but he mentioned that they didn't go to Helsinki on that trip. They were restricted to the training facilities in Vierumaki. This trip also took the team to Vierumaki, which Gilbert said reminded him of his home in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
For Siergiej, this was the first experience he had with a national team. He had also done little international travel. The opportunity came for him directly from Coach Jackson. "It was one day here this summer. We were working camp, and he comes in and sits right in the chair in my office and asks, 'Are you interested in working World Juniors?' and I'm like, 'Um, yeah, I'm interested. Are you okay with me leaving?' Because at that time, we knew Gilly was going, and we knew how our staff operates. Gilly and I are a duo on a lot of stuff, so it was, 'Are you okay with both of us being gone?'" Because there were a few months to plan, Jackson was again supportive of temporarily losing a staff member, and Siergiej readied his passport.
While Bjork was busy playing the game and Gilbert was organizing equipment, Siergiej was working heavily with the coaching staff cutting film for study. "I spent a lot of time with Coach Wilson, Chris Chelios, and Dan Cole, and our other assistant Kevin Rider," he recalled.
It was somewhat surreal in ways as well. "Being around Chris Chelios--the knowledge of the game that he has is unbelievable as is his attention to detail." Chelios was a defenseman in the National Hockey League for 26 seasons and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2014.
"Sometimes you think with superstars, they're just naturally gifted and they don't know how to teach it, but he was just unbelievable with our guys, with our kids. It was really cool to get to know him on a personal level, not just like 'Hey, you're Chris Chelios.' I can text him if I want. He's a good friend now."
All three found the gameplay the most memorable part of the trip. "Starting off with Canada was intense. That day, it felt to me--the last time I remembered feeling like that was like playing Boston College in the national championship game. It was that level of intensity," said Gilbert. In very few things are Canada and the United States at odds with each other, but hockey can spark a friendly rivalry. "Right off the bat," Siergiej corroborated, "the Canada game grabbed your focus."
"Before we played Canada," Siergiej said, "Jake Evans sent me a text that said, 'You guys are going down."
Evans, a sophomore from Toronto, Ontario, also sent a text to Bjork, his roommate on the Notre Dame campus. "He texted me before the game, 'Go Canada!' with a bunch of Canadian flag emojis, so I didn't respond until after. Thank God we won that one."
After beating Canada with a final score 4-2, Team USA moved on to further preliminary games against Sweden (L, 0-1), Switzerland (W, 10-1), and Denmark (W, 4-1). The quarterfinal game was fought against a Czech Republic team, renowned for having a talented team every year. "We were anxious there, but then we ended up taking care of them pretty easily," Gilbert boasted.
The semifinal game was when emotions revved up. For Gilbert, he said, "That's when it really, really, really hit me that we were playing international hockey. We moved over to Hartwall arena, and you're in front of 13,000 fans, and a lot of them are Russian because they're so close to their borders there, and Canada travels so well. And for whatever reason, Canada hates us, so between the Russians and the Canadians, it was a pro-Russia environment, and you're just sitting on the bench going like--it kind of makes you think about the 1980 Olympics, and that kind of thing. You're just going 'Holy Cow. This is like US/Russia. This isn't Notre Dame/BC anymore.' So that was probably my 'Aha!' moment, when you're like, 'Holy cow, this is pretty special.'"
A 2-1 loss to Russia was a disappointment for the young American team. Bjork partly credits the loss to the inability to build a foundation for team chemistry due to time pressures. "I think we had the most skill there, but we just weren't together very long and stuff, so we couldn't go through those adverse situations."
That loss led the team to their bronze medal game victory against Sweden, in which Bjork scored twice, once in the first period and once in the second. Consequently, he was named the U.S. Player of the Game. But the medal was not his biggest takeaway from the game.
"Individually, [it's] definitely confidence. Not being cocky, but believing in myself and knowing I can play with any player and make an impact in any game is just what I take away from that tournament. Also, what ties into that, is focusing on the details and acting more professional."
Even though the experience required personal sacrifice from all three men, it was a chance to represent both their school and their country on an international, highly competitive stage. Spending their holiday vacation in an unconventional setting gave them an unconventional Christmas present, and one only an elite group has: a medal from a World Championship.