Access all areas: Behind the scenes with the USA ice hockey team
The ink had barely dried on the scoresheet of the ice hockey game between Canada and the United States on Tuesday (16 February) when USA assistant coach Justin Forrest sat himself down in front of a computer to dissect the video of the match.
Never mind that it was almost 48 hours until the US played Russia in their final preliminary round game at the Lillehammer 2016 Youth Olympic Games. Routine and attention to detail are vitally important in the world of elite sport.
Video can be a great teaching tool if used the right way. The USA was coming off a 4-2 loss to the Canadians when Forrest went looking for clips of what his players did right and what they did wrong.
“Our game is about what our players do,” he said. “We are more focused on what we are doing [than what the opposition are doing],” he said.
Hockey players – even 16-year-old ones – are creatures of habit. They don't like change because it gets them out of the routine. Video, like many other things, is part of the routine.
“Some things are new; this environment is new,” said Forrest. “We have had good crowds, it is an international tournament and a lot of these guys have not been to Europe. You are playing Canada and Russia and it is the first time they are doing this.
“But at the end of the day, you are playing a hockey game; you are playing in a hockey tournament.”
Sportspeople are often surprisingly superstitious. If you win a game on the day you put your left skate on first, you keep the same ritual until you lose. Some players never step on the blue line when they enter the field of play for the pre-game warm-up, a coach might wear the same pair of trousers throughout a winning streak.
This adherence to routine, to doing what feels comfortable and correct, means the USA teens walk to and from their accommodation to the arena as a group. They eat together. They have lights-out in the Youth Olympic Village (YOV) at the same time, and when the alarm rings the next morning, it rings for all.
Wednesday was an off day in the competition and the US teenagers spent the day trying out experiences at the Lillehammer 2016 Learn & Share programme.Forrest and head coach Scott Paluch, meanwhile, watched a recording of Russia’s 2-1 win over Finland. When the players returned to the YOV at 19:00 they sat through a video session with the staff in preparation for Thursday’s big game.
“We watched some NHL stuff,” said Forrest, referring to the North American professional National Hockey League. “We like to show them what the NHL guys do because we find it is a great learning tool. When they see the best guys in the world do it, they say ‘OK’.”
After a good night’s sleep, it was time for game-day preparation. The wake-up call was for 09:20 and the players strolled as a group to the common eating area for all YOG athletes.
Unlike in the professional ranks, or even other major international tournaments such as the under-20 world junior championships, at the YOG all the athletes from every nation eat together.
“Whatever is in the bucket is in the bucket. It has been fine,” Forrest said. “Eggs are high protein and that is good. Some guys need fat, or potatoes, or yoghurt and fruit.”
After breakfast, there was a stretching session with the team’s training staff at the rink, followed by 20 minutes of video that focused mostly on combating Russia’s tactics.
Lunch was as 12:00 and after a break to rest – and, of course, a chance to catch up on social media – the players met at 14:45 for the 10-minute walk to the arena, followed by a team stretching session, before beginning their final preparations for the game.
“Hockey players are creatures of habit and we try to keep them in that moment,” said Forrest. “It is game day at last and I’m sure they had a sour taste in their mouth after the Canada game.”
The USA players were not about to get ahead of themselves. While they had already secured a spot in the medal round before facing the Russians on Thursday, there was no talk of atoning for the disappointment of finishing fourth at the Innsbruck 2012 Winter Youth Olympic Games. “Four years ago these guys were 11,” explained Forrest.
A fast-paced, physical match ended with a 4-2 victory for the United States, meaning they face the Russians again in the semi-final on Friday (19 February).
After a warm-down and a post-match briefing with head coach Scott Paluch, the players had a brief opportunity to mingle with fans, friends and family before heading back to the village for food and a well-earned rest.
The celebrations are muted. After all, they have to do it all again tomorrow.