By Kirk Luedeke
Although the U.S. National Junior Team fell short of its goal of repeating as gold-medal winners in the 2011 World Junior Championship in Buffalo, N.Y., Chris Kreider’s veteran leadership played a pivotal role in helping the team come away with the bronze.
The Boxford, Mass., native scored a pair of goal in Team USA’s 4-2 victory over Sweden in the bronze-medal game Wednesday to finish the tournament with a team-high four goals, but he backed up the words he spoke after the hugely disappointing loss to Canada two nights earlier.
“We’re playing for pride now. We’re playing for next year’s team,” Kreider said after the Americans were dominated by Canada, 4-1, the only loss of the tournament for Team USA. “The guys with character should probably rise to the top, rise to the occasion.”
Kreider, a Boston College sophomore forward, did just that in the bronze-medal game, scoring a power-play goal in the second period and then closing out his team’s production with a third-period strike to put the game out of reach.
With his blazing speed and effective shot, Kreider was one of the most dominant prep players in recent memory two years ago for Phillips Andover Academy after leaving Masconomet High. His heroics in leading the Big Blue to the 2009 NEPSIHA semifinals — where they ultimately fell to U.S. backup goalie Andy Iles’ Salisbury School — were enough to see him drafted with the 19th overall selection by the New York Rangers in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft. Since then, he’s won a gold medal in the 2010 World Juniors and an NCAA championship the same year as a freshman at Boston College.
“Kreider is a winner,” said one NHL scout in attendance at the WJC last week. “He’s got world-class speed and is a character player. Despite not having played a lot of elite level hockey, he’s managed to stand out against some of the best competition out there.”
One year ago, Kreider managed to survive the final round of cuts to earn a spot on the U.S. team that went to Saskatoon and stunned Canada, denying them an unprecedented sixth consecutive gold medal with an overtime victory. Although Kreider was one of the younger, inexperienced players on that roster, he was one of the seasoned vets on the 2011 squad at the tender age of 19.
“It’s a different team dynamic obviously,” Kreider said. “You lose a few guys, and you get a few new guys. (There’s a) leadership turnover; everything’s a lot different in the locker room, so there’s a good positive environment, but it’s still different.”
Kreider added that his personal comfort level was much higher this time around, not only because of his experience a season ago but also because he knows so many players on the squad. A year ago, he didn’t know anyone going in. One such confidant of Kreider’s on the current U.S. club is also a close friend at BC: defenseman Brian Dumoulin (Biddeford, Maine).
“‘Kreids’ has played an awesome tournament,” Dumoulin said. “He’s such a great skater, and when he gets that speed going, there aren’t many guys who can counter that. He’s an excellent teammate who does all the little things, too.”
Playing on the PiCK line with Kyle Palmieri and rival Charlie Coyle (East Weymouth, Mass.) afforded Kreider the opportunity to skate with Coyle even though the two players have been on-ice opponents going back to their days in prep when Coyle skated for Thayer Academy and, of course, when the San Jose first-rounder joined Boston University this past fall.
“You always know he’s a good player,” Coyle said when asked about centering Kreider. “Speed kills; he’s an unbelievable skater. So it’s a little easier playing next to him than against him. He’s just an awesome kid, an awesome player to play with; I’m just lucky to play those guys.”
Kreider, for his part, has always tried to keep it low key and minimize the hyperbole.
“I’ve really enjoyed skating with both Charlie and Kyle,” Kreider said. “You learn a little bit of something every day with those two, and I’m glad for the chance to be a part of it.”
For several years now, New England hockey fans with access to Andover and Boston College games have seen Kreider’s potential firsthand. His hockey skills are certainly enough to get him to the NHL, but his work ethic, intelligence and leadership are what will keep him there.
Even if you may have missed his performance in this tournament, don’t be surprised to see Kreider starring on Broadway with the Rangers in the not-too-distant future.
Kirk Luedeke can be reached at email@example.com