Nearly a quarter of a million fans flocked to Halifax and Sydney, Nova Scotia for the 2003 IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship Dec. 26-Jan. 5. To Eric Nystrom, it felt like every one of them was rooting for Canada.

Nystrom, along with Michigan teammate Dwight Helminen, helped Team USA to a fourth-place finish – the best American showing since 2000 – but he’s not sure that anybody in the eastern Canadian province noticed.

The home team “might as well have been the only team there, the way the press talked it up,” Nystrom said.

But both Wolverines enjoyed playing in the hockey-crazy country and said the highlight of the experience was the semifinal game against Canada (which later lost the gold medal game to Russia).

Helminen called it “unreal” and, even though Yost Ice Arena is known for its intense crowd, Nystrom said it doesn’t compare to the Halifax Metro Centre during the Americans’ 3-2 loss to their northern neighbors.

“That was the loudest arena I’ve ever been in in my life,” Nystrom said. “I’ve never heard anything like it. Even when we scored, they just stood up and started giving (the Canadian team) a standing ovation again.”

The two sophomores – who returned to Ann Arbor Monday and resumed practice with the Wolverines on Tuesday – were impressed with the host cities throughout the tournament. Nystrom had two words to describe the area: “Hockey haven.”

“People there embraced the tournament like I’ve never seen hockey get embraced,” he said. “Even though they weren’t rooting for us, just the enthusiasm they had, always wishing us good luck, it was just unbelievable. It was a great place to have it.”

This was Nystrom and Helminen’s first trip to Nova Scotia, but their second to the World Juniors. Last year in the Czech Republic, they played for a United States team that placed fifth.

This year’s squad reached the bronze medal game before falling to Finland, 3-2, and Helminen said one difference was that the 2003 team “had a lot more chemistry” than last year.

The Michigan players took on bigger roles this year. Nystrom was surprised but thrilled to be named captain.

“Oh, it was an honor,” Nystrom said. “To represent the best 20-year olds and be the captain? And I wouldn’t have picked a better group of guys to lead.”

Both Wolverines dressed for all seven games. Helminen scored four points on a goal and three assists. Nystrom notched a shorthanded goal and two assists.

Nystrom and Helminen returned excited from their trip, and although Michigan coach Red Berenson said guys don’t always play well right after the 11-day tournament, the team is glad to have them back for this weekend’s home-and-home series with Western Michigan.

“It’s like a family getting back together,” Berenson said. “There’s been a couple of empty stalls in that locker room for the last couple weeks. And when you see Dwight Helminen sit down, when you see him skate, he adds something to our team. And so does Nystrom.”

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