From Russia, with gold

HOUGHTON – It was quite a winter “break” for Michigan Tech sophomore forward Blake Pietila.

Not only did his Huskies win their first Great Lakes Invitational since 1980, but he became the first Tech player ever to win a medal at the Under-20 World Junior Championships.

“It’s probably something I’ll look back on in 20 years when I’m done playing hockey and realize how fortunate I was to play on the team and win a tournament like that,” said Pietila, who was a valuable member of Team USA’s gold medal victory over Sweden on Jan. 5.

But it was quite a journey to even make the team, let alone win gold.

After completing his fall semester final exams early Pietila jumped aboard a flight out of Houghton County Memorial Airport with North Dakota’s Rocco Grimaldi Dec. 16, the morning after Tech got swept by UND.

From there he went to New York, where he and several former U.S. National Team Development Program teammates – he played for the USNTDP from 2009-11 – spent several days practicing at the New York Rangers’ facility.

Then it was off to Helsinki, Finland. Intercontinental travel isn’t a new thing to Pietila, who had been to Slovakia, Germany, Sweden and the Czech Republic with the USNTDP, but it was his first time in Finland, where his family has its roots.

“Everybody was asking me if I was from there because of my name, but it’s my grandma and grandpa on my mom’s side who were from Finland, born there, and my dad’s parents’ parents, my great-grandparents were from Finland,” Pietila said.

Finland was also where he made the team as Team USA played exhibition games against eventual silver medalist Sweden (3-2) and the host Finns. The U.S. lost 5-1 in that second exhibition, but Pietila scored the only goal, and when the final roster was announced in a team meeting the next morning, his name was on it.

Then the work really began as the team flew to Ufa, Russia for four pool play games in five days.

“We actually flew with Canada, Sweden and Finland all in one flight,” said Pietila, though there weren’t any interesting exchanges between teams. “I think they do it for safety reasons flying into Russia, so we chartered into Russia and out with the same teams.”

Safety considerations were constantly in play in Russia, and when the team wasn’t playing, it was staying at the hotel, without access to phones or good food.

“It’s nothing like here. The food wasn’t very good, they had police escorts everywhere we went, just a lot more security with us walking around with USA stuff on,” Pietila said. “They had 24-hour security for the hotel and police escorts to the rink every day.”

The menu: plain noodles for breakfast, plain noodles for lunch, plain noodles for dinner. Pietila lost seven pounds as a result of the diet, though playing seven games in 10 days certainly played a role, too.

After starting pool play with an 8-0 win over Germany, Team USA faced adversity in the form of a pair of 2-1 losses, to the host nation, and rival Canada.

“When we lost to Russia and Canada, they were the only two games our age group has ever lost internationally, so that was kind of weird to see the other flag going up after the game,” said Pietila, who played a much different grinding role than the team-leading scoring role he’s used to at Tech.

“Me, Cole Bardreau and Ryan Hartman were a line. We weren’t picked to be a scoring line, we played against the top lines, played two-way defensive hockey, and if we could chip in offensively that was a bonus,” described Pietila. “It’s not too tough. It’s easier to go into a defensive role than an offensive role, but I enjoy my role here at Michigan Tech.”

Several analysts called Pietila’s line the most consistent line for Team USA, which bounced back from the Canada loss with a dominant 9-3 win over Slovakia on New Year’s Eve.

Then the Phil Housley-coached team kicked off the elimination rounds with a 7-0 quarterfinal win over the Czech Republic, setting the stage for a USA/Canada rematch for the right to play for gold.

“Going in, most of the guys knew that was probably our gold medal game, if we could beat them we’d have a pretty good shot of winning in the finals,” said Pietila, whose team convincingly beat the Canadian roster full of NHL draft picks 5-1. “That was a really good game, the crowd was mostly Canadian, so it was a lot of fun.”

Team USA then won the gold medal game 3-1 over Sweden, capping off the storybook journey.

“It was awesome. A lot of the guys we played with in Germany with the Under-18 team,” Pietila said. “Through the years when they first started the development team, they always kind of said the ’93 birth year was kind of down, and weren’t as good as some of the other years.

We always played with that in the back of our minds and never really lost a tournament.”

Pietila didn’t have long to savor the medal, as Team USA flew out of Ufa the following day, back to Helsinki, into New York City, back to Chicago, and eventually into Houghton, just in time for practice before Tech’s Jan. 11-12 series at Minnesota Duluth.

“It’s an 11-hour difference, so once I was able to get some sleep it wasn’t too bad,” Pietila said.

The team is still trying to figure out whether Pietila, who seemed to switch back into his offensive role against Bemidji State, will get some time off this week or weekend. He never was able to visit family downstate over the holidays. Tech has an intrasquad game at 6:30 p.m. Saturday at Dee Stadium.

“It’s tough. You’d like a couple days, but you don’t want to get out of shape for when we go to Nebraska-Omaha (Feb. 1-2),” Pietila said.

“That’s a tough thing to take time off in the middle of the season.”