Drawing players from Maine to California, the U.S. Junior Hockey team is taking on a truly national flavor as it prepares to defend its world title in less than three weeks.
General manager Jim Johannson on Tuesday released a list of 29 players representing 13 states invited to the team's pre-World Junior Championship tournament camp that opens next week in Troy, N.Y.
"It really shows how our game has grown," Johannson said.
He noted how the group of players includes those from hockey hotbeds such as Boston and Minneapolis, as well as some less traditional markets, including four from California. And that doesn't include forward Jason Zucker, who's from Las Vegas, or defenseman Philip Samuelsson (Scottsdale, Ariz.).
That's all good news for a national program that's benefiting from a larger talent pool and showing signs of surpassing many European nations in challenging Canada for international hockey supremacy.
The Americans turned heads at the Vancouver Games in February by losing the gold-medal game in overtime to Canada. And then there was last year's World Junior Championship tournament in Saskatchewan, where the U.S. defeated Canada 6-5 in overtime in the title game.
"I think our system is producing more players capable of playing at this level," Johannson said. "So it makes decisions like this tough, but it's the right kind of tough decision to have to make."
Birthplaces aside, the U.S. team's roster will be stocked with players from familiar hockey college powers. The Hockey East conference leads the way with nine players invited, including four from Boston College. The WCHA is second with seven players receiving invitations.
The pre-tournament camp opens Dec. 16, and officials intend to make their final cuts to set a 22-player roster by Dec. 22. The U.S. opens the tournament playing Finland on Dec. 26 in Buffalo.
The list of invited players includes eight who played on last year's team, including goalie Jack Campbell, who is currently playing for Windsor of the Ontario Hockey League.
It's also a group that features nine players selected in the first round of the NHL draft, and another nine second-rounders.
Size and speed dominate the roster, particularly on defense. Of the 10 defensemen receiving invites, seven are over 6-feet tall, including Jamie Oleksiak. At 17, the Northeastern University standout is listed at 6-7 and 240 pounds.
Four of the players are already playing professionally in the American Hockey League. They are forwards Jerry D'Amigo (Toronto), Jeremy Morin (Rockford) and Kyle Palmieri (Syracuse) and defenseman Nick Leddy (Rockford).
Morin (Chicago), Palmieri (Anaheim) and Leddy (Chicago) have already made their NHL debuts this season.