Before he won the Stanley Cup, before he became one of the NHL’s most productive defensemen on an annual basis and before he entered the Norris Trophy discussion, John Carlson was just another 19-year-old hockey player trying his best to prove he belonged with the big club.
A 2008 first-round draft choice of the Washington Capitals, Carlson was assigned to the team’s AHL affiliate Hershey Bears to start the 2009-10 season. He had earned a call-up and appeared in three NHL games, but the Capitals decided he could get some valuable experience as a member of Team USA at the 2010 World Junior Championship. Little did Carlson or the Caps know at the time that that decision would lead to their No. 1 prospect becoming an overnight folk hero in American hockey circles.
The Americans rolled through the preliminary round, winning three games and losing the fourth in a shootout to Canada. Big victories over Finland and Sweden put Team USA in the gold-medal game on Jan. 5, 2010 … against Canada once again. The Americans had won only one gold over the 33 years the tournament had existed, while Canada had won gold in each of the previous five World Junior Championships, and had the added benefit of playing this tournament on home soil in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.
The 2010 final will live on as one of the wildest in a tournament with a history of crazy finishes. The game included 11 total goals, a total of four different goaltenders seeing time, numerous momentum swings, a late comeback and ultimately one unforgettable finish. ESPN caught up with Carlson and a number of his U.S. teammates currently in the NHL (with some Team Canada player quotes from 2010) to recap what happened on the night the current Norris Trophy front-runner announced his presence to the greater hockey world and helped bring the tournament into the mainstream for American hockey fans with one flick of the wrist.
After trading punches for most of the game, the U.S. held a 5-3 lead late in the third period when Jordan Eberle, the hero of Canada’s gold-medal run in 2009, scored twice in the final three minutes of regulation to send the game to overtime. A raucous, sold-out crowd was whipped into a frenzy, with the American team reeling from a late collapse.
Derek Stepan, USA center: When we first got into the locker room, it was still so loud. We still could hear the fans. I mean, it felt like probably 10 minutes but it was probably only a minute of us hearing them cheering as we were sitting in the locker room. It was loud, but our room was pretty quiet.
Jason Zucker, USA left wing: I was actually surprised at how quiet it was. It was almost a deafening silence of sorts.
Chris Kreider, USA left wing: I think everyone was a little deflated in between periods, but we had this one song that we’d walk out to. I remember the room was real quiet, and then John Ramage went up and put the song on and everyone re-focused.
John Ramage, USA defenseman: I remember coming into the locker room and I just said, “Guys, we’ve been outplaying them all game. All it takes is one shift, one shot, and we can win this thing.” I don’t know why I was so confident back then, but I just had a feeling we were going to get the job done.
Jordan Eberle, Canada right wing, in 2010: It was almost tough going into the dressing room before overtime because we were on such a high and we wanted to stay out there and play.
John Carlson, USA defenseman: By the time we got back onto the ice, we washed away all those bad emotions and started playing hockey again.
The U.S. and Canada traded chances throughout the early going of the overtime period. Just 4 minutes, 10 seconds into the extra frame, Canada had a partial odd-man break with Nazem Kadri leading the charge. Though the U.S. evened things up thanks to a quick Kreider backcheck, Alex Pietrangelo trailed the play and had a clear look at the net.
Ramage: It was almost like a 3-on-1, it was close. And [Kadri] had the puck and was coming down my left side.
Kreider: I remember I caught up to Pietrangelo. We had all come back hard so we had numbers back.
Ramage: They dropped it back to Pietrangelo, and I remember this vividly: Pietrangelo wound up for the slapper and ripped it. It was a bomb. I was playing on the other side to take away the pass, and he ripped the slapper, and I turned and was like, “Uh oh.”
Stepan: I was coming on the ice as they were going by us, so I had a behind-the-play view. I could see pretty much the exact angle to [USA goalie] Jack Campbell, and I was watching [Pietrangelo] wind up.
Ramage: Jacko made a huge save, a big pad save, and the rebound just kicked out right to me.
Kreider: [The Canadians] kind of sold out on that play, and we turn around to go the other way. From our own zone up the ice, we all had a step on our guy.
Ramage: Next thing I know, I turn around and we had numbers going the other way. I looked up and John Carlson was almost to our blue line, so I just passed it up to him.
Carlson: When I received the puck, I already had a good head of steam.
Zucker: I was looking right at Chris Kreider because I was supposed to be the next guy up, and Kreider was flying down the left side behind Carlson. I was seeing if he was going to change or not.
Kreider: There was zero chance [I was changing].
Stepan: Because I came on late, that’s what allowed me and John Carlson to have the 2-on-1.
Carlson: Usually I’m not much of a shooter, so I was thinking to pass the whole time, and I had Stepan on the other side. The D played more towards him, and I didn’t want to try to waste a pass into his skates or his stick and kill the momentum.
Kreider: [Carlson] opens up and I’m coming as the third guy, I’m high-stepping, I’m cocked, I’m ready for the puck to come to me. Steps is driving back door.
Stepan: I joke with people all the time that the whole time I was like, “Don’t pass it to me, don’t pass it to me,” but I wasn’t really thinking that. I knew we had a golden opportunity to end the game.
Kreider: [Carlson] fooled everyone in the building. He put the puck in a position where you don’t expect him to shoot.
Stepan: It was a subtle little play, but that little movement to open his hips up froze the goalie [Martin Jones] for a second, and it allowed him to have that lane to the net.
Carlson: At the last second I decided to shoot it.
Kreider: He just rolled his hands over and obviously the goalie didn’t expected him to shoot because he didn’t even flinch.
Carlson: I’m more used to joining the attack versus leading it. In that situation, it was almost like I was waiting too long to make a play, and that’s kind of the reason it worked out so great. Obviously it was a good feeling after that.
Quick heads up… World Juniors. pic.twitter.com/T1BcHONJmt
— Chris Peters (@chrismpeters) December 26, 2019
Carlson’s shot snuck inside the left post behind a stunned Jones, giving the U.S. a 6-5 victory just 4:21 into overtime and its first gold medal since 2004. It was Carlson’s second tally of the night.
Kreider: It was pure elation. I thought he was going to make the play to Step, but it was an unbelievable play by John. The whole building went quiet, and our bench was going nuts, and then I saw Jason Zucker come flying over at a million miles an hour, nearly knocking Carlson unconscious.
Carlson: There was a lot going on, but I do remember getting hammered — I didn’t know it was Zucker — but I do remember that someone really hammered me against the glass right by the penalty boxes.
Zucker: I was ready for Kreider to change, so I was well ready to jump. I was jumping no matter what. [Carlson] went down on one knee and was fist-pumping and it was just pure joy. I’m a pretty small guy compared to him. That was probably my first- or second-biggest hit of the tournament.
Stepan: I was so pumped, I just remember screaming. I was already going to the net, so I was going the other way [from Carlson after he scored] and I was one of the last guys to the pile. We were such a close-knit group. It was such a fun moment that we were all right there and enjoying it.
Prior to 2010, the United States had earned five total medals. In the nine tournaments since, Team USA has earned six total medals, including two golds (2013, 2017), and is currently on an unprecedented medal streak of four consecutive tournaments (a gold, silver and two bronze over that span).
Stepan: I’m not so sure that we had something to do with that. I think a big part of it is USA Hockey’s players have gotten a lot better. USA Hockey has grown so much. I think that’s what has allowed the tournament to grow here. We’re getting more talent at a younger age, where I think Canada used to have the upper hand there for the most part. Seeing us win might have started it, but the growth of the game is a big part of it, too.
Kreider: There was a ton of pride and no one takes that for granted. That’s probably the biggest stage outside of the Olympics to represent your country. I could not have enjoyed that process more.
Canada had entered the game undefeated in the 2010 tournament and was trying to win the World Juniors for a record sixth consecutive time. The Canadians have won two gold medals since, their 16th (2015) and 17th (2018) titles.
Team Canada’s roster in 2010 included 13 future regulars in the NHL, 10 first-round draft picks and even an MVP winner (Taylor Hall). And Pietrangelo, who unleashed the slap shot scoring opportunity right before the Americans’ goal, would end up scoring the eventual game winner in Game 7 of the 2019 Stanley Cup final for the St. Louis Blues. He is one of four Stanley Cup winners from that 2010 roster.
Eberle, in 2010: Overtime, anything can happen. A bounce here and they get a 3-on-1 and obviously it was a great shot.
Ryan Ellis, Canada defenseman, in 2010: It’s tough, especially coming back the way we did. We shot ourselves in the foot a bit [early on].
Taylor Hall, Canada left wing, in 2010: It’s unfortunate we didn’t get to make history.
Ellis, in 2010: We got so close and it didn’t happen for us.
Where are they now?
The Americans rostered nine future NHLers, and seven players were first-round picks.
Jason Zucker was Team USA’s youngest player. He scored two goals in the tournament and was drafted the following summer by the Minnesota Wild 59th overall. Over nine NHL seasons, all with the Wild, Zucker has appeared in 445 games and has scored 130 goals.
Zucker: It’s good for anyone at any age to know how to win, whether you’re a key part like Carlson or Stepan, or you’re playing more of a smaller role like I was in that tournament. It’s good to know and learn what it takes to win. Winning in any league at any time is hard to do. It was great to be able to follow those guys’ lead and learn to win and just to know how hard it was to do that. I think that’s huge. The other part for me personally, it made me realize where I was at in my career. I wasn’t NHL-ready. That tournament helped me know that I needed to go to college to get better and get stronger.
John Ramage felt he was a bit of a long shot to make Team USA, let alone be a relied-upon shutdown defenseman. He had three assists in the tournament, none bigger than his last. A fourth-round pick of the Calgary Flames, Ramage appeared in two NHL games, but has enjoyed a long pro career, primarily in the AHL. Ramage recently made the jump to Europe, where he is playing for one of the top teams in Germany’s Deutsche Eishockey Liga (DEL), Eisbaren Berlin.
Ramage: It’s a life experience, and I can’t believe it’s been 10 years. I think it’s definitely helped me throughout my career, going through college and pro hockey and dealing with different situations.
Chris Kreider was one of seven first-round draft picks to play for Team USA in 2010 and tied for the team lead with six goals in the tournament. He returned to the WJC in 2011 and helped USA win bronze on home ice. He is also a two-time NCAA national champion with Boston College and has played all eight seasons of his NHL career with the New York Rangers, recording four 20-goal seasons.
Kreider: There was total and complete buy-in from everyone on that team. There were guys who were the go-to guy on their team who normally didn’t play a defensive or penalty-killing role doing an unbelievable job on the penalty kill. The way we wanted to play 5-on-5, we were a hard team to play against with an unbelievable D corps. We had a lot of depth looking back on it. I didn’t really know Step at the time, but what a leader he was. The character he displayed every night, he played a key role. It was a really special experience. Outside of the  Stanley Cup run, the most fun I’ve had playing hockey.
Derek Stepan was Team USA’s captain and leading scorer with 14 points in seven games. It is the fourth-highest point total by an American in the tournament’s history. He has played over 700 games spanning 10 NHL seasons with the Rangers and Arizona Coyotes.
Stepan: That tournament is really what kick-started everything for me. I was drafted in the second round to the Rangers, but I wasn’t really on many radars. I don’t believe I was on a fast track to get to the NHL still. Then I had a really good tournament, a lot of GMs and scouts. And so for me, that tournament is something I’ll always lean on as the kick-starter of my career.
Every year around Christmastime, I just enjoy watching it. We just had [Coyotes rookie] Barrett Hayton, who’s been with us all year, he just got told he can go play [for Canada] and I just told him, “I’m so jealous. Go have fun and you’re on a really cool stage.” It’s just a cool tournament and fun to watch.
Ten days after scoring the golden goal, Carlson was recalled by the Capitals. He appeared in 19 regular-season games upon his return and was part of the team’s playoff roster that season. In the 10 years since his World Junior heroics, Carlson has become one of the league’s best defensemen. He won the Stanley Cup with the Capitals in 2018, registering 20 points in 24 games during Washington’s unforgettable run. This season, Carlson is producing at a per-game rate double his career numbers and appears to be the front-runner for his first Norris Trophy after finishing top five in the voting in three previous seasons.
Carlson: Obviously my goal when I got to the tournament was to win the tournament, but bigger picture [at the time] I was trying to solidify myself as an NHL player, find a role and find a jersey every night to wear. That was my big picture at that time.
I’m a pretty confident player as it is, but I think going into the tournament I felt very confident having played games in the NHL and in the American league against older guys. Certainly coming out of it, that was a big time in my career. There was a lot going on with the call-ups and the travel. I think the [World Juniors] helped spring my confidence in my game to a point where I really started playing my best hockey directly after that. So it’s a memory that’s right at the top of any achievement or championship that I have won. And certainly with playing for your country and beating Canada on their own soil, it was a pretty special moment.