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Team USA legacy to be cast in bronze

This was not, of course, what the U.S. players had in mind when they began their journey three weeks ago. No one establishes the bronze medal as the goal. Few people remember who wins it, either.

Do you know who won the men's Olympic hockey bronze medal at Lake Placid in 1980, or for that matter, last year in Vancouver? Does anyone recall, or much care, which swimmers won the seven bronzes behind Michael Phelps in Beijing?

"I won't lie to you," said U.S. goalie Jack Campbell. "I wanted gold. I had my heart set on that. That loss to Canada the other night was heartbreaking. It was tough to come back from."

The American juniors came to Buffalo with one compelling objective -- to defend their Under-20 world championship from a year ago. After they fell flat against Canada in Monday's semifinal, they were a beaten and disspirited bunch. Ryan Bourque, one of their assistant captains, said there was a general feeling of embarrassment, too.

So when they rolled into bed late Monday night, some of the U.S. guys wondered how they could possibly come back. This wasn't like last year's tournament in Saskatoon, where they were the surprising underdogs. They were actually favored to repeat here. Now, they were expected to get up for a run at third place?

"We're all competitors," said Bourque, one of eight returning players from the 2010 title run. "I don't think any athlete likes to lose. Just had to just spend the day together getting over it and come back from the adversity. We do everything as a team, and we had to get over it as a team."

They got over it, at least for one day. With the help of their coaches, the Americans lifted themselves from Monday's disappointment and bounced back as a team. Kids are amazing that way. Anyone who has raised children knows they're more resilient than you ever imagine.

The U.S. had two choices: They could mope about the Canada loss and watch the Swedes accept the bronze medals. Or, like proud hockey players, they could summon the will and desire to win.

They chose the latter option. The Americans started strong and finished even stronger, getting three third-period goals to beat Sweden, 4-2, for the bronze. OK, it wasn't gold, but it was the first junior worlds medal for the U.S. on home soil, and the first time the Americans won medals in back-to-back tournaments.

"Our coaches did a great job of preparing us," Campbell said. "(Tuesday) at practice, they talked about what we were going to do. Hearing what everyone was going to do, you just knew everybody was going to hold himself accountable. Everybody did, and that's why we won tonight."

"We wanted to leave everything out there," said Bourque. "We wanted to have no regrets. As a team, I think we really came out hard and did that. I'm just really proud of the way we played in that third period, and it said a lot about us as competitors and as a team."

The coaches told the U.S. players they had a chance to make history. Campbell, the only American male goaltender with three IIHF golf medals, added to his personal legacy in international play, winning his 14th career game in international competition.

Campbell stopped 34 of 36 shots. It was reminiscent of his performance off the bench in the gold medal game a year earlier, when he saved 32 of 34 shots in an overtime win. He was the Americans' best player in the event, even in the 4-1 loss to the Canadians.

"His record speaks for itself," U.S. coach Keith Allain said. "The championships he's won, and the games that he's won in international competition, has been amazing. But just as important to me is that he's a fantastic kid. He told me that he really wanted to get a gold medal for the guys that were new to the team this year."

There's always next year. Campbell, who turns 19 on Sunday, will be eligible for the Under-20 tourney again next year. He'll have a chance to be the first American to win three medals in a row. In the meantime, losing the gold will eat away at him.

"Ten years from now, making history for winning medals two years in a row will mean a lot to me," Campbell said. "But losing to Canada is always going to hurt. I've already got my calendar circled for next year around this time. So maybe we can get a little redemption."

e-mail: jsullivan@buffnews.com

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