USA Hockey's junior evaluation camp spices up hockey's midsummer desert

Bruce Bennett

America's top hockey prospects are in Lake Placid this week for USA Hockey's annual junior evaluation camp, spicing up an otherwise dull time on the hockey calendar.

LAKE PLACID, N.Y. -- While the summer is a desert for hockey fans looking for action, there is an oasis to be found nestled in the Adirondack Mountains.

Every summer, USA Hockey holds its World Junior Evaluation Camp in Lake Placid, the town drenched in hockey lore where the sport's biggest upset was authored 33 years ago. This year is no different, as some of the NHL's top prospects gather to try to earn spots on their respective national teams for this year's Under-20 tournament in Malmo, Sweden.

But the 2013 event holds a bit different air in Lake Placid for two reasons.

Firstly, the U.S. opens camp as the defending champ, having captured the 2012 title with an impressive run through the medal round, including a 5-1 thrashing of the rival Canadians en route to the gold. And secondly, that Canadian squad will bring a lot of attention when they join the tournament mid-week after holding practices early in Quebec.

Providence College goaltender and Calgary Flames prospect Jon Gilles, who was the backup netminder for the squad that won gold in Ufa, Russia, says that the defending champions can't stay focused on what happened a year ago.

"I guess so, it's kind of the same atmosphere [as last year,]" Gilles said. It's a whole new group of guys than last year. Last year's last year. We have the medal, we have the rings, we're moving on."

Even though Gilles -- who had a strong season with the Friars last year -- is expected to take the spot of John Gibson, the USA goalie won MVP honors in Ufa, he isn't taking anything for granted yet.

"I have to make the team first," he said. "I'm coming in here, working as hard as everyone else is and trying to earn my spot."

Gilles was good in his camp debut, allowing just one goal in 30 minutes of play against a Swedish squad that controlled play over the split-squad USA white squad.

For new players, such as Boston University's Matt Grzelcyk, it's a chance for the new squad to try and repeat last year's performance.

"I think it's maybe a little added pressure, but also gives us a feel to try and go out there and win it again," Grzelcyk said.

The timing of the camp is a bit of a break to the summer for prospects before they head to college or juniors in the fall, but helps develop some team-building before reconvening in December for the tournament itself.

"It's good, it's a lot of fun to be here," Gilles said. "It's an honor to be here, and it's great to see the guys before they go off to school and stuff. To get a feel for who likes who, who likes to play with who and stuff like that. Then, come back in December. Last year, we came back in December and guys were ready to hit the road."

Grzelcyk, who wasn't part of last year's squad but was part of USA Hockey's National Team Development Program, played well, notching a goal against Sweden in the 4-2 setback.

"Most of the guys during the summer don't play too many games, so it's nice to come out with some of the best guys and compete for a spot," Grzelcyk said.

While the U.S. plays split-squad games early in the week against the Swedes and Finns, things will be ramped up a bit when the Canadians head south from their camp in Quebec later in the week, culminating in their meeting with the U.S. Saturday afternoon.

With Lake Placid sitting less than two hours from the Canadian border, it's expected the addition of the rivals will add some attention to the event, as the media and certainly some fans will make the trek south to the tiny hamlet to watch some midsummer hockey.

The dasher boards feature ads this year -- unlike last year's camp when just the Swedes and Finns visited -- and there is extra room for the 35 or so media members credentialed for the tournament, most of which will be coming in time for the Canadians' arrival.

In a town where references to the "Miracle on Ice" are everywhere from retail shops to other signage, local retailers said they looked forward to seeing some of the visitors from north of the border, as it is expected to raise the profile to what normally is a pretty low-profile event.

For now, fans looking for a bit of hockey in August can find a pretty entertaining brand up in Lake Placid. Before the word gets out this weekend.

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