(icehogs.com) — With the Rockford IceHogs off to their best start in franchise history and battling for the top spot in the American Hockey League’s Western Conference, Associate Coach Mark Osiecki is taking a leave from the team to coach Team USA at the IIHF World Juniors Championship.
So when Osiecki got the call last spring, from USA Hockey General Manager Jim Johannson, who then approached Chicago Blackhawks General Manager Stan Bowman about the possibility of having Osiecki involved, neither party gave it a second thought, even though the timing comes in the middle of the AHL season.
"I’ve been on the staff three different times, not counting this tournament, for World Juniors," said Osiecki. "It’s one of those things that Jim Johannson and I were talking about the opportunity. Then he contacted Stan Bowman and we all thought that this was a no brainer to be involved.
"When Jim called, I was very humbled to have that opportunity. Anytime Team USA calls, you want to give up your time and have the ability to go and help. I told them going back to last year that I’d go back as an assistant, it doesn’t matter to me. I just like being involved. I think that’s the enthusiasm that goes with this tournament."
The 2015 tournament kicks off on Friday, Dec. 26 and USA will take on Finland at 2 p.m. at the Bell Centre in Montreal. Overall, Team USA will face-off against four teams in a round-robin style format leading up to the Quarterfinals on Friday, Jan. 2.
Without a doubt, Osiecki’s past track record in the tournament was appealing to USA Hockey. As an assistant coach in 2010 and 2013, Osiecki helped lead USA to the gold medal in the prestigious tournament.
The 2010 tourney came in Canadian soil as USA knocked off Canada in the gold medal game in Saskatoon. That win has only helped fuel the rivalry between the two countries on the ice that really started to bud during the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympic Games.
"You look at the hockey news right now with [Jack] Eichel and [Connor] McDavid on the cover, they are building that up," commented Osiecki on the rivalry. "We are going to try to pull that back a little bit, it’s not one-on-one, but it is a team vs. team or country vs. country thing.
"But it’s a fun thing to be a part of. The thing that you really look forward to is playing Canada on the 31st. It’s just one of our games in the round robin tournament, but it’s one of those things that everyone knows it’s on the calendar and the excitement builds up to that game."
The fact that the tournament is in Canada once again should add to the intensity. Osiecki noted the differences in the two tournaments he has been a part of in North America (2010-Saskatoon and 2011-Buffalo) compared to overseas (Ufa, Russia-2013).
The first difference is the travel as the USA squad will have the luxury of keeping their current 30 player roster intact through a brief camp and two game exhibition schedule. Instead of making a quick decision on final roster spots, the hockey operations can get a better evaluation of the players for the final roster. Plus there won’t be a time zone adjustment for the team to overcome.
The second, according to Osiecki, is atmosphere.
"I’ve been in Saskatoon for the tournament and they did a great job there. The enthusiasm and the excitement that goes around the tournament in Canada is second to none. We also experienced the tournament in Buffalo as well and it jumps off the page in terms of that with the fans.
"Then you experience it over in Ufa, and it was a little different. It was still run extremely well, but the excitement was not the same. Being in Montreal and Toronto is going to be outstanding. It’s a fun thing to be around, but for our players to understand what they are going into, it’s going to be a hostile environment. But you almost have to use that to your advantage."
Team USA’s roster is loaded with current and future NHL draft picks, including four skaters already selected by the Blackhawks with hopes of one day joining the organization.
That list includes forwards Nick Schmaltz (1st round, 2014), Anthony Louis (6th round, 2013), Tyler Motte (4th round, 2013) and John Hayden (3rd round, 2013). All four are currently enrolled in school and playing college hockey.
"It was fun to get to know those guys over the summer," said Osiecki. "To be able to spend time with them and have some sort of communication with these kids from that point on has been very good to get to know them. They certainly have a lot of upside with us as an organization. It will be fun to see how they respond in such a tough tournament."
To be a head coach is a big commitment and Osiecki assures that he has been able to keep his focus on the IceHogs up to this point during the 2014-15 season.
The bulk of the process in selecting the team for the World Juniors Championship began over the summer in Lake Placid, N.Y. Following the camp in August, the players split up to join their respective junior teams or return to school to begin their collegiate campaign.
Of the 30 players still on the roster, 16 are enrolled at an NCAA university while the remaining 14 are playing junior hockey in either Canada or the U.S.
"I’m really looking forward to it, a good group of kids," said Osiecki. "I think the player personnel staff and Jim Johannson did a great job and I’m looking forward to seeing the 30 kids in Boston. We really haven’t spent much time on it until this point. Obviously it’s in the back of your mind, thinking about it, knowing its coming up.
"It’s so easy to stay focused with the task at hand here in Rockford. And we have a great staff with USA Hockey. So it really hasn’t taken up any extra time. I spend a little time speaking with Jim. Once we get out to Boston as a staff, we’ll get out there a day early and that’s enough time to get us organized and get us ready for our camp."