A year ago, Jon Merrill, Chris Brown and David Wohlberg were sent packing from the US National Under-20 Team’s training camp in Grand Forks, N.D. when the team made its final roster cuts. Dejected, all three players returned to Ann Arbor — Merrill to finish his senior year at Pioneer High School, Brown and Wohlberg to skate for the Michigan hockey team.
Three weeks later, they sat at home watching as the United States captured the gold medal at the World Junior Championships, a 6-5 victory over Canada in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.
But this December, two of those skaters got a second chance at winning their own gold medal. Merrill — now a freshman on the top defensive pairing for the Wolverines — and Brown, a sophomore forward, were invited back as part of the preliminary roster for this year’s Team USA.
“I took it to heart when I didn’t make the team (in 2009), so this year I made it my goal to make it,” Brown said.
The players’ first big test at this year’s training camp, held in Buffalo, N.Y., was to make the final roster. The coaches scheduled a trio of exhibition games — contests against Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Czech Republic and Switzerland — serving as a gauntlet to determine which players would earn their USA sweaters come tournament competition.
“Everyone was fighting for a position, and you just didn’t know,” Brown said. “There were guys who even won a gold medal on the team last year that didn’t know. Everyone was fighting for a spot, and I think that helps you play much harder.”
After the Czech Republic match, a 3-2 loss for Team USA, the coaching staff trimmed the roster one final time, cutting seven players. Although Brown was leading the team with two goals and Merrill was already on the top defensive pairing, there were certainly a few jitters for the pair of Wolverines.
“It’s still always in the back of your head that you’re not going to make it,” Merrill said. “It’s a pretty grueling, intense camp for the first five days.”
When the roster was finalized and announced on Dec. 22, both Merrill and Brown made the list, meaning they would miss the Wolverines’ games at the Great Lakes Invitational in Detroit. Brown could only describe his feelings with one word: “relieved.” For the Flower Mound, Texas native, it was the perfect Christmas gift.
“To get to play on home soil in Buffalo, just get to play more hockey over Christmas, you can’t really ask for more,” Brown said.
The journey had just begun, and their stiffest competition inevitably loomed in the distance: Team Canada. But the U.S. still had one more tune-up game, followed by four more games in six days at the 2011 World Junior Championships in Buffalo.
Merrill, Brown and their teammates cruised through Group A, defeating Finland, Slovakia, Germany and Switzerland in consecutive games to bring about the most awaited matchup of the championships in the semifinals: the rematch between Team USA and Team Canada.
But the international rivalry had been brewing ever since the World Junior Championships began. Due to the relative proximity of Buffalo to Canada, there was a massive Canadian contingent in attendance, and they were heard all week long.
“It felt like homefield advantage because we didn’t have to go outside the States, but in some games it didn’t feel like it,” Brown said.
And when the rematch of the 2010 finals arrived, Team Canada took revenge in a big way, burying their rivals, 4-1.
“Even in games like when we played Finland or Germany or Switzerland, there were so many Canadian fans there that were still rooting against us,” said Brown, who scored the only U.S. goal in the game. “When the big game came up, us versus Canada, I think the 13th man — the fans — kind of kicked in a little bit.”
Added Merrill: “It’s kind of a shame that it was 90-percent Canadian, 10-percent U.S. on our own soil.”
After dropping the decision with Canada, Team USA rebounded in the bronze-medal game against Sweden with a 4-2 victory. Brown concluded his three points (two goals and one assist) in the championships, while Merrill chipped in a goal and four assists.
Following the game, Merrill was honored by being named one of the top three performers on this year’s U.S. squad — joining Merrill were goaltender Jack Campbell (Windsor Spitfires) and forward Charlie Coyle (Boston University).
“Bronze is still a big deal,” Merrill said. “For a lot of guys it was their last time to wear the USA sweater, so it was something we took pride in.”
After flying in from Buffalo at noon on Thursday with a bronze medal in his possession, Brown dropped wearily onto a couch inside Yost Ice Arena just two hours later, fatigue showing on his face. When asked if he was ready to face another rival in Michigan State on Friday, he gave a laugh.
“Michigan and Michigan State, it’s just like Canada and USA, the adrenaline is going to kick in,” Brown said. “It doesn’t matter what you have — minor injuries, major injuries, whatever — I’m ready to play.”