MINSK, Belarus -- The United States begins its quest for a second consecutive world championship medal at the 2014 International Ice Hockey Federation Men’s World Championship against Belarus, as the tournament host nation celebrates its Victory Day national holiday.
Fan enthusiasm and the nation’s support should reach an all-time high as Belarus will be playing its first-ever home world championship game on Friday evening at the 15,000-seat Minsk Arena.
Team USA will have to weather the storm of a Belarusian team playing, arguably, the most anticipated game in the hockey-crazed nation’s history.
“We have to be ready to go right off the bat, we know they’re going to be excited and have a lot of energy,” said alternate captain Craig Smith, who is making his fourth consecutive world championship appearance. “We have to manage that, cut it down, and make sure we build off our own momentum with our own group on the bench.”
The U.S. enters the tournament with a youthful squad average less than 25-years-of-age. On Friday morning, U.S. head coach Peter Laviolette named Detroit Red Wings forward Justin Abdelkader as team captain.
“It’s a tremendous honor and I’m very excited about leading this team,” said Abdelkader, who also played for the 2012 U.S. Men’s National Team and 2007 U.S. National Junior Team, which won a bronze medal. “We’ve got a lot of leaders and good players – we’re a little bit young, but very hungry.”
“It’s going to be one of the better environments that all of us have played in tonight against Belarus,” said Abdelkader, who just finished his seventh season with Detroit. “It’s a huge game for them, hosting the tournament for the first time and we’re really looking forward to it.”
Laviolette, who was named head coach of the Nashville Predators on Tuesday, is coaching the U.S. National Team at the IIHF World Championship for the third time. He was also behind the bench in 2004 and 2005, leading the team to a bronze medal in 2004. The Franklin, Mass., native also served as an assistant at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games and head coach in Torino at the 2006 Olympic Winter Games.
“I think the most important thing in these type of tournaments is that every day you try to get better and become more in sync both on and off the ice together,” Laviolette said.
“You have different people from different parts of the country; it’s a great event to try and bring a team together and when they do start to come together, it really gets fun to watch them play.”
Between the pipes for the U.S. will be veteran goaltender Tim Thomas. It will be the 40-year-old goalie’s seventh world championship appearance, but first since 2008, when he posted a 2-0 record. The former Boston Bruins Stanley Cup champion and Vezina Trophy winner also played for Team USA at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.
“He’s honestly one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met...he’s a veteran in our locker room and he has a pretty important role here,” Smith said about Thomas. “Right off the bat, he’s talking and communicating with everyone. It kind of opens the eyes for some of the younger guys to kind of put themselves outside of the box a little bit.”
Entering the 2014 tournament, Team USA is ranked sixth in the IIHF world rankings, while Belarus is ranked 15th.
The United States is 4-0 against Belarus in tournament history with their last affair coming in 2012 as the Red, White and Blue won a preliminary round contest 5-3.
However, the atmosphere tonight in Minsk, should be unlike anything the U.S. has ever seen in previous contests against Belarus.
“This isn’t going to be an easy game for us,” Laviolette said. “It’s a proud day for their country and hockey and for them to be able to host the world championships and play against the United States.
“It’s going to be a good hockey game with a lot of energy and emotion.”
Team USA has typically started strong at the world championship, having won its opening game in each of the past three years and eight times in the last nine tournaments.