Josh Norris and Quinn Hughes were no strangers to U20 World Juniors. It was only one year ago the sophomore forwards had both appeared in it together for Team USA, earning a bronze medal.
Returning to the scene once more — this time in Vancouver and Victoria, Ont. — they had their eyes set on gold.
“It was obviously a lot of fun anytime you can go and represent your country,” Norris said. “Obviously that’s a pretty big tournament and something that you grow up dreaming about playing in.”
The duo ended with eight points and a plus-minus of nine between the two. Their impacts, however, were more than just on the stat sheet.
“It’s nice having a familiarity there with Josh,” Hughes said to SiriusXM. “I kind of know what he likes to do and I’m sure he knows what I like to do so whenever we’re out on the ice, it’s easier.”
After a slow start that ended in a narrow 2-1 win over Slovakia, Hughes emphasized USA’s growth and unity as a team.
“For us, we just got to keep building every game,” Hughes said to SiriusXM. “I think from the first game to the end of the tournament, we’ll be a completely different team. So us every day we just got to continue getting better so hopefully for today’s game we’re better today than two days ago.”
Hughes and Norris were named alternate captains before the start of the tournament, putting a burden bigger on them than just playing their best. They had to be leaders.
“You can have different kind of leaders,” Hughes said. “I think for me, just working really hard on the ice and showing that you really care, and that’s what I kind of attract to.”
The team got after it in the following match against Kazakhstan, ending in a dominant 8-2 win. Hughes contributed an assist to take the lead after Kazakhstan tied the game at one apiece. He sparked the power play goal after drawing the defense by passing the puck back and forth across the blue line. Norris tallied an assist and the eighth and final goal of the game to cap a commanding performance.
Even after the beatdown, Norris thought the team hadn’t reached its full potential. It wasn’t until the following game, against Sweden, that he saw the team grow. After allowing a three-goal deficit through two periods, Team USA looked out of sorts as it allowed in a fourth goal minutes after the third period started.
However, the team scored four unanswered goals to tie the game — one of which came off a Hughes assist — and pushed it into overtime, where the team ultimately failed to secure the comeback win.
Despite the close loss, Norris says that game will stick with him.
“I think the Sweden game, our round robin game against Sweden, we were down 4-1 with eight minutes left, and (St. Cloud State forward Jake Poehling) hit three in the last eight minutes and that was pretty crazy.
“That kind of gave our team a little bit of life, and right after that game is where we took off. We all kind of believed in each other a little bit more, that was probably the moment that stuck out to me.”
Norris would add an assist and a game-winning goal in the team’s subsequent wins over Finland and Czech Republic, 4-1 and 3-1, respectively.
He also generated multiple scoring opportunities in the semifinals against Russia that ended in a 2-1 win for USA.
“It was the first time in the tourney people were actually cheering for us,” joked U.S. National Team Development program player Jack Hughes to SiriusXM after the match.
Despite his solid performance throughout, Norris’ biggest achievement was in the final match Jan. 5 against Finland. The team had dug a 2-0 hole and after 50 minutes of play, the deficit was cut to only one. Hitting a one-timer from the right circle, Norris scored the equalizer that rejuvenated not only the players on the ice but the entire bench.
“Everyone was really excited because we were down two nothing to a really good team,” Quinn Hughes said. “It’s hard to score goals in that tournament, so when he scored you could just feel the energy on the bench and in the stadium, that it was tied up and we were all really excited.
“There was a confidence on the bench that once we tied it up, we’d be OK.”
Added Norris: “It was obviously a pretty big momentum change and probably one of the biggest goals I’ve ever scored and I was on a high there for 15, 20 seconds.”
Team USA went on to lose the match 3-2, earning a silver medal.
But despite being unable to secure the victory, the tournament offered Hughes and Norris a change of pace from college hockey.
“The NCAA’s pretty tough,” Hughes said to the Victoria media group. “You’re playing 24-25 year old men actually, and the guys aren’t as strong, but you’re playing more elite players so sometimes they’re a little bit more skilled.”