2024 IIHF World Junior Championship

USA Hockey's Gold-Medal Win At World Juniors Defined By Rivalry, Redemption

USA Hockey's Gold-Medal Win At World Juniors Defined By Rivalry, Redemption

USA's win over Sweden at the 2024 WJC was the latest and perhaps meanest chapter in the rivalry.

Jan 6, 2024 by Chris Peters
Rutger McGroarty Reacts To Team USA Win

GOTHENBURG, Sweden – For nearly two years, it had been eating at Rutger McGroarty. The biggest heartbreak of his young, promising hockey career had come at the hands of Sweden. He couldn't go through that again. He wouldn't.

In the spring of 2022, McGroarty's U.S. Men's National Under-18 Team had spent two years working towards one goal -- an IIHF World Men's Under-18 Championship gold medal to close out their National Team Development Program careers -- and played a spectacular game to get there. But 5-foot-10 goalie Hugo Havelid played the game of his life, making 47 saves, and took the gold medal away from that U.S. team. 

Last year, USA and Sweden both fell short of the gold-medal game at the World Juniors and the U.S. beat them for the bronze medal in dramatic fashion. But that wasn’t going to satiate McGroarty or his fellow 2004-born players’ appetite for revenge. It had to be for the big one to erase the memory.

As an age group, the 2024 IIHF World Junior Championship represented their last chance. Eleven players who were on the roster for that loss to Sweden in Landshut, Germany, were on this year's roster. Eight of them were playing in their last ever IIHF amateur event. 

They only had one more chance to rewrite the story and finally get over the hump. The 2004-born players had never won gold at any major international tournament. That included the 2020 Youth Olympics, when they lost to Russia in the gold-medal game. For some players, they fell short of gold at two World U18s -- both losing to Sweden in their final game -- and then had to settle for bronze at the last World Juniors.

So one last time, the stage was set and it just so happened to come in Sweden’s second largest city and home to one of the most storied clubs in all of European hockey, Frölunda. In front of 11,512 screaming fans, most of which were clad in the iconic gold Sweden Tre Kronor jerseys, this budding rivalry got its biggest platform and most dramatic setting yet.

It almost lined up perfectly for the Americans who were so hungry to prove themselves in their final opportunity. What better way for revenge than to beat the team that had been responsible for a player’s most difficult heartbreak than to do it right back on their own turf?

It was an opportunity that McGroarty and teammates like Cutter Gauthier, Isaac Howard, Jimmy Snuggerud and Lane Hutson had been craving. They had no choice but to seize it.

McGroarty said after USA won the semifinal against Finland to get their revenge date with Sweden that the game was “personal” and that it would be “emotional.” Was it ever.

The crowd was involved from the drop of the puck and the buzz in the building was palpable. The U.S. and Sweden had been the two best teams in the tournament and it seemed like the game was going to go down to the wire.

Sweden controlled play for a good chunk of the first period before the U.S. flipped the script after a big penalty kill. When the Americans scored the first goal, the air came out of the building a little bit.

When Isaac Howard scored twice in the second period, one of those many players who had taken the bitter pill Sweden gave them at the U18 World Championship two years ago, the feeling started to favor the Americans.

But then Jonathan Lekkerimaki, the player who had four points in that fateful gold-medal game in Germany two years prior, scored another big goal with five seconds remaining in the second period.

It seemed as though Sweden had saved one more trick up their sleeve by stealing the momentum going into the intermission. It seemed.

Team USA saved their best period for last against their old rivals. Zeev Buium, who was part of last year's U18 team that had beaten Sweden for the gold medal at the 2023 IIHF World Men's Under-18 Championship, scored an insurance goal to give USA its two-goal lead back 1:19 into the period, pulling the superman celebration out to rile up the crowd further.

The back-and-forth continued, but then Ryan Leonard – who was one USA’s three younger players on that 2022 U18 team and hero of the 2023 U18 Men’s World Championship – put the dagger in Sweden and sealed it with a kiss, blown to the crowd.

Sweden pulled their goalie in desperation, but McGroarty – USA’s captain who had sealed up the pain and the bitterness for so long – scored the empty-net goal and unleashed a scream so loud you could hear it from the press box and looked as though he would crash through the boards in his celebration.

But the game couldn’t end without so much passion spilling over. Hutson, Gauthier and McGroarty got tangled up with Noah Ostlund and Anton Johansson. Some punches were thrown, particularly between the 5-10 Hutson and 6-2 Johansson, but no gloves were dropped. It resulted in 48 minutes in penalties handed out and a few players sent off to cool down.

But the game was already over by then and it only delayed the celebration a little longer. A few more seconds wasn't going to mean much for the Americans.

For all the pain USA had felt two years ago, it looked as if Sweden’s own disappointment was only amplified in front of the home crowd that had given them so much juice throughout the tournament. 

Tears flowed for the young men in golden jerseys as the silver medal was placed around their necks. The continued cheers and chants of support from the Scandinavium faithful did little to console them. Not while their new and seemingly most hated rivals were celebrating just 30 feet away.

While tensions may have boiled over, the quality of the game and the quality of the rivalry has only enhanced the drama of the tournament. This was the collision course that anyone who knew the backstory secretly hoped would be the final chapter. It lived up to the hype.

When asked after the game if this is how the story ends for these players and this rivalry, McGroarty said “Who knows, maybe this is the start of a new one.” 

Join the Hockey Conversation on FloHockey Social