Though December has long been known to Michigan hockey fans as the month of the Great Lakes Invitational, supporters of the Maize and Blue have become accustomed to another tradition over the past decade. While most of the Wolverines will suit up in for the GLI like any other year, a select few will pull red, white and blue sweaters over their heads.
Freshmen Jack Johnson and Mark Mitera will suit up with sophomore Kevin Porter for the World Junior Championships in Vancouver, B.C. Yesterday morning, the three were named to this year’s United States squad.
“It’s a great thrill and a big accomplishment,” Mitera said. “It’s definitely really memorable when you get to play for your country. It has been a goal of mine – especially coming up through the national team system – to put on the sweater one more time.”
Over the past few years, Michigan players have made their mark on the tournament. Junior Matt Hunwick and former Wolverine Al Montoya led the United States to its first-ever gold medal two years ago.
All three of Michigan’s representatives are optimistic about the United States’ chances, but they agree that the team’s success hinges on how well the group bonds over a short period of time.
“I think we’re definitely a contender,” Mitera said. “Over these past few years, we’ve definitely been a gold medal contender. If we come out and play our game and everyone is playing together and clicking, we have a chance to come out pretty successful.”
Johnson said he believes playing with two of his teammates will help make his adjustment less difficult, especially during the holiday season.
Michigan coach Red Berenson was pleased to see three of his players receive the honor of representing their country. He expected Porter and Johnson to be selections all along, but Mitera’s inclusion came as a pleasant surprise.
“I think Mitera surprised them,” Berenson said. “I don’t know that he was on their radar screen as much as he is now. I think Johnson and Mitera, by the way they have played here, have really helped themselves.”
The downside is that the trio will miss the GLI, where Michigan will face off with No. 4 Colorado College and either Michigan State or Michigan Tech. But Berenson said he believes that his players can gain a lot from playing internationally.
“I’ve always tried to support not just USA Hockey, but support the experience that a kid can have on a world stage,” Berenson said. “I think that experience is really good. If your experience at Michigan can help catapult you to that elite level for a few weeks, it will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, so we should support that.”
In addition to the three American selections, freshman Andrew Cogliano was invited to the Canadian National Team camp. He will depart Ann Arbor after this weekend’s series with Nebraska-Omaha to compete for a spot on the final roster.
“I think I have a pretty good chance (to make the team),” Cogliano said. “I think I started off well here and had a good summer camp, so they know who I am. I went in there in the summer and coach (Brent) Sutter really didn’t know who I was coming out of juniors, but I think he has a good idea of what I can bring (now).”
Although Cogliano’s numbers certainly justify his candidacy, he might find himself fighting an uphill battle against major junior players from Canadian leagues.
“I don’t know the competition as well,” Berenson said. “But I know the kid. And if he gets a fair shot, the chances are good. I think, competitively, he has a leg up. I think, politically, he may not. All the management of the Canadian team will be major junior coaches and so on. You’re a player that turned your back on major juniors to come to college, and now you’re trying for a team that is 99 percent major junior players.”
The Canadian team has overlooked future NHL stars, including former Michigan players Brendan Morrison and Marty Turco, in the past. But Cogliano said he hopes his impact at this summer’s camp has entrenched him in Sutter’s mind. Cogliano believes that Sutter will take Canada’s best players, regardless of what league they play in.
Should Cogliano make the Canadian team, it would add another enjoyable dimension to the Michigan players’ experience when the United States and Canada meet on New Year’s Eve.
“There’ll be a little bit of bragging rights, but it’ll be kind of fun,” Johnson said. “Hopefully, I’ll get to line up against (Cogliano) and say ‘hi’ to him in the gold medal game.”