As classes start up again at the University of Wisconsin and students begin to swap winter break stories after nearly a month off school, it would be safe to say sophomore defenseman Jake McCabe’s story might just take the gold.
Chosen in early December as captain for Team USA in the World Junior Championships, McCabe can boast a winter break story that includes leading Team USA to an unlikely gold medal after the team failed to make the podium at all in the same competition just a year ago.
The World Junior Championships, which were held in Ufa, Russia — a city of more than one million people less than 1,500 miles east of Moscow, Russia’s capitol — are a U-20 competition involving some of the best young talent hockey has to offer from all across the globe.
Playing seven games in 10 days with average temperatures in December and January rarely above freezing in Ufa, McCabe said simply “the rink” was the highlight of his trip.
After getting off to a shaky start in a pair of tune-up exhibition games Dec. 20 and 22 before the tournament, which included a narrow 3-2 overtime win against Sweden and a demoralizing 5-1 loss against Finland, the U.S. didn’t fair much better in the group stage of the tournament.
By the end of the group stage — four games later — Team USA had a mediocre 2-2 record.
But as is the case with many championship teams, it often takes just one game to click into gear and reverse a team’s fortunes from underperformer to championship contender.
And that is just what McCabe and Co. did.
The levy finally broke in the quarterfinal round of the single-elimination portion of the tournament, as Team USA thrashed the Czech Republic 7-0 — scoring five goals in the second period alone — on their way to a critical momentum-building victory.
“To have a group of 23 guys come together like that in such a short amount of time [is huge],” McCabe said. “We slowly improved throughout the tournament and we were playing our best hockey by the end of the tournament and that was key to our success.”
Looking back on the tournament, McCabe pointed to Team USA’s 5-1 semifinal drudging over rival Canada as the true turning point for their title hopes, a victory made all-the-more sweet after a disheartening loss earlier to Canada in the group stage of the tournament.
“We came out with such energy and we really put them on their heels,” McCabe said. “I can honestly say we dominated them the whole game.
“It’s always sweet to beat Canada. It’s such an emotional game, such a heated rivalry. Any win is nice, but when you can say you dominated throughout the game, it makes it that much better.”
To make the surprising victory even sweeter for the young captain, McCabe scored two of Team USA’s five goals against Canada and assisted on another.
Meanwhile, halfway around the world and a 12-hour time difference away, McCabe’s supporters in his hometown of Eau Claire, Wis., including his family and friends, had to wake up in the early hours of the morning to follow Team USA and McCabe as they advanced through the tournament.
“A local bar [in Eau Claire, Wis.], Dooley’s Pub, was opening early and letting people come watch that didn’t have NHL Network at their home,” McCabe said. “My mom was waking up at 3 a.m., so [were] my brother and sister and everyone. It was pretty cool that they could support me throughout this whole experience.”
After one final victory just a few days later against reigning-champion Sweden in the championship, McCabe had a gold medal to add to his three goals and three assists in the tournament.
With a World Junior Championship gold medal to call his own, McCabe has entered an elite group in the Wisconsin Hockey ranks — a group that now includes seven gold medalists for Team USA — even outdoing current teammate and fellow defenseman John Ramage, who was Team USA’s captain in a bronze medal effort in 2011 (although he did earn a gold medal on the 2010 team).
As McCabe makes his return to Wisconsin’s hockey team, Ramage knows first hand from his own appearances in the World Junior Championships the benefits that McCabe will see.
“To win the gold medal at any level is an unbelievable accomplishment,” Ramage said. “He has a little extra emotion coming back now, after an emotional high, and it will help him to be more in tune and more confident now.”
Still, while his Wisconsin teammates played just two games against Alaska-Anchorage in WCHA play during McCabe’s absence, Assistant Coach Matt Walsh was quick to quash the effects that any lingering fatigue might have on McCabe from playing seven games in 10 days for Team USA.
“He is a mainstay in our defense,” Walsh said. “They are in such good shape, these kids … now that he is back he will get into the routine again and he will be just fine.”