U.S. has a tough road to repeat

Team USA's gold-medal win over Canada in the 2004 World Junior Championship was in many ways a victory in a vacuum. It was a perennial underdog team winning an international tournament played abroad that gained little attention in the United States outside of hockey circles.

A year later, the dynamics are reversed.

Not only are the Americans defending a title for the first time in the 27-year history of the tournament, they are doing so on home soil in the highest profile and most hotly-contested hockey event on the continent, thanks to the current National Hockey League lockout.

Their quest begins against the Russians on Christmas night, the opening day of the 2005 World Junior Championship, which runs through Jan. 4 and will be contested at Ralph Engelstad Arenas in Grand Forks, N.D, and Thief River Falls, Minn.

"It's going to be an unbelievable experience. I know they've been hyping it up for the last year," said forward Drew Stafford, a sophomore at the University of North Dakota and whose home rink will serve as the main venue. "There's a huge buzz in town."

Stafford is one of eight returning members of last year's gold-medal winning team. He is joined by defenseman Ryan Suter, who would most likely be playing with the Nashville Predators if it weren't for the lockout; the offensively gifted Patrick O'Sullivan; Robbie Schremp, one of the top point producers in the Ontario Hockey League; and University of Michigan goaltender Al Montoya, the linchpin in last year's gold-medal win and arguably the top netminder in the tournament.

As was the case entering last year's tournament, Team USA has enough talent to win. But they aren't alone this time. The NHL lockout has fortified every team, most notably Canada, which left a number of first-round draft picks off the invitation list for selection camp.

Can the Americans find enough chemistry given their limited practice time and two-game exhibition schedule? Will they have enough leadership to maintain focus in the face of media scrutiny unlike any they've ever experienced?

"Young kids are kind of neat that way. You never know how they'll react," said University of Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves, leader of last year's squad. "I don't think we will know until they actually start playing."

There are some "awfully talented people there. There's some natural goal scorers in that group," Eaves said, referring to O'Sullivan, Stafford and Columbus Blue Jackets draft pick Dan Fritsche, who is recovering from a shoulder injury. "It's finding the right chemistry. That's the daunting task for the coaching staff."

Rather than focusing on the pressure his team will face, head coach Scott Sandelin will impress upon them that this is an opportunity to be seized.

"We're going in there to win this tournament, not just be successful," said Sandelin, the head coach at the University of Minnesota-Duluth who is coaching in his first international tournament.

It won't be easy.

Canada returns 12 players from last year's silver-medal winning team and enters the tournament as the odds-on favorite to win its first gold medal since 1997. The Russians, who the Americans meet in a pivotal opening game Christmas night in Grand Forks, will boast the top two picks from last year's NHL entry draft, Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin. The Swedes and Finns will also be in the mix for a medal.

"I think success would be winning any medal," said Dean Blais, former coach of North Dakota who would have been the head coach of Team USA had he not taken a job as an assistant coach with the Columbus Blue Jackets.

While the Canadians are the most physically imposing presence in the tournament, observers say the Americans could be a deceptively speedy bunch. There are also enough offensive defensemen on the team -- Suter, Wisconsin sophomore Jeff Likens, and 17-year-old high schooler Brian Lee -- to give the U.S. a potential edge along the blue line.

"Sometimes that's the difference in the game," Blais said.

Sandelin calls the 6-foot-3, 200-pound Lee, who has committed to attend North Dakota next season, one of the best young hockey talents in America.

"He has a lot of the gifts that kind of make him a very special player. Maybe in this tournament, maybe down the road," Sandelin said.

One of the challenges for Sandelin, considered one of the brightest young coaching minds at the U.S. college level, is treading the fine line between distancing his team from last year's squad and following its example.

"I don't want to be a carbon copy of them," he said. "I'm certainly different than coach Eaves."

Of course, he cautioned, "we're not trying to stray away from what they did last year. They had a winning formula."

Most members of the 2004 team that ran the table in Helsinki, which included a come-from-behind 4-3 win over Canada in the gold medal game after trailing 3-1 through two periods, had played together for several years in USA Hockey's development program and were extremely close.

"Everyone was such good friends with each other," said Stafford, who was picked 13th overall in last summer's entry draft by the Buffalo Sabres. "I see the same thing happening with this team."

Perhaps the greatest byproduct of last year's win is the proof that it can be done, said Jim Johannson, senior director of hockey operations for USA Hockey.

Of course, with the knowledge that they are indeed among the world's elite comes the pressure on future teams to repeat, especially this year.

"If we're not at the big dance, Suter and the boys are going to be upset," Johannson said. Suter and O'Sullivan are the 15th and 16th players in U.S. history to participate in three straight World Junior Championships.

More than 200 media are expected to cover the tournament, a significant increase over the three previous times the tournament was held in the U.S. (1982, 1989 and 1996). A national radio broadcast will be available and a national television deal is expected to be announced shortly.

It is uncharted territory for a program that has only three other World Junior Championship medals to its credit -- one silver (1997) and two bronze (1992, 1986). Stafford, for one, embraces the possibilities.

"I really hope the American community can become sort of what Canada does in terms of following the tournament," he said.

That would be another opportunity seized.

Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.