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U.S. goalie relishes underdog role

Jack Campbell and Ryan Ellis are as tight as they come. They're teammates on the Windsor Spitfires of the OHL. They're pals. They live together. Each was the 11th overall pick in the NHL entry draft -- Ellis for Nashville in 2009, Campbell for Dallas a year later.

But Campbell says that during their entire six months together in Windsor, the subject didn't come up once. Not at dinner. Not on a long road trip, or during an idle moment in front of the TV. Neither one has ever mentioned what happened a year ago at this time in the World Junior Championship in Saskatoon.

"We just don't talk about it," Campbell, the U.S. goalie, said Wednesday. "We're both as competitive as you can get. Last year, when we were fortunate enough to beat them, I know how heartbreaking it was for Ryan. So I never mention it. It won't be brought up this year, either, out of mutual respect. We take it very personally."

The Americans beat Canada for gold a year ago, 6-5, in overtime. Campbell, just four days shy of his 18th birthday, came off the bench to stop 32 of 34 shots for the U.S., which snapped the Canadians' five-year championship streak.

A year later, they're back at it. The Americans and Canadians are favorites to meet again for the gold next Wednesday evening in HSBC Arena. Campbell is back in net for the defending champions. Ellis, a defenseman, is the Canadian captain and the seventh player to represent his country three times in the event.

Zack Kassian, the Sabres' top pick in the '09 draft, is a rookie on the Canadian team. He's a teammate of Campbell and Ellis in Windsor. Kassian has no painful memories of last year's juniors, and had no qualms about talking trash to Campbell.

"He told me they're going to win it," said Campbell, a native of Port Huron, Mich. "That drives me a little bit. Zack's kind of a kidder. When I got all my new USA gear with the stars on it, he looked at it and said, 'I'm going high glove on you.' "

Kassian reflects the sentiments of Canadian fans, who have been only too willing to express their disdain for the Americans. They've descended on this fine city in droves, eager to see their young heroes take back the trophy they regard as their national birthright.

This is serious business for Canadians. Maybe that's why Campbell never boasted to Ellis about winning gold. It would like making light of someone's religion. Look inside Canada's dressing room. In each player's stall, there's a list of players who have worn the same jersey number in this event. World championship banners hang from the ceiling. A list of all the Canadian gold medal-winners adorns the walls.

There's a roll call of captains, a photo of every championship team since 1982. Ellis says the players are treated like kings. Sidney Crosby, Steve Yzerman and Wayne Gretzky called before the start of this year's tourney to offer support.

Canada had won five consecutive gold medals before the Americans stunned them last January. The final was the most-watched telecast in history on Canada's TSN. It was seen by an average of 5.3 million viewers; 12.3 million, more than one out of every three citizens, saw at least some of it.

"Canada won it five years in a row," Campbell said. "I don't know how they can be mad over that."

Oh, but our friends from the North are angry. This is their sport, and, as Campbell said, it's personal. The pressure is always on the Canadians to win. So even though the U.S. is defending champ on home ice, it feels as if Canada is the team to beat.

The Americans come off as the villain, the boorish intruder. The Canadians have more of the tickets, and make more of the noise. When Campbell gave up a goal to Finland in the U.S. opener, fans chanted his name in derision. When the Finns scored late to tie the game, 2-2, Canadians were seen dancing in the aisles.

There is virtually no attention paid to the U.S. team in American media. Look at the front page of any national website. It's as if the World Juniors doesn't exist. It's college football bowls, the NFL, the NBA. The NHL talk is about the upcoming Winter Classic between the Penguins and Capitals.

There are probably 500 high school football players more famous than Campbell in Texas, where he will tend goal for the Dallas Stars one day.

The U.S. boys can do one of two things: They can whine about being unappreciated, or they can embrace the situation. Draw strength from their virtual anonymity. Take the swirling enmity of the Canadian fans and feed off it.

"I actually like it more," Campbell said. "It's fun. I hope they keep chanting. I've had the home soil before, in North Dakota at the under-18s. It was a lot of fun. But being in Saskatoon last year, with 15,000 Canadians, it was great fun to go up against that. It's a big challenge, and it makes the focus of our team even greater."

But doesn't he envy the Canadians just a little, being part of such a powerful and enduring hockey culture?

"Obviously, it's cool what they have," Campbell said. "It's pretty special. Hockey is their lives. It's impressive. At the same time, I wouldn't give up being American for that. We have a lot of benefits, being in the United States. In a perfect world, I wish our society liked hockey more. But it's the sport I chose, and we have to deal with that."

Maybe hockey isn't a n- tional obsession, but it's still a thrill to represent your country and honor the sport. Campbell was watching last year when Ryan Miller brought the U.S. to the brink of an Olympic gold medal and became an instant national hero, even in defeat.

Campbell has had a more decorated international career, and he's only 18. He has won three gold medals in IIHF world championships. Last year, he won gold with the U.S. for the under-20 and under-18 squads. Entering this event, he was an eye-popping 11-1-1 in world events, with a 1.17 goals-against average and a 0.954 save percentage.

But it's the Olympics that draw the attention of casual U.S. sports fans. One day, maybe Campbell will be like Miller, leading a U.S. team and representing his sport and country well at the biggest international event of all.

"I've got a lot of work to get to that level," Campbell said. "Seeing a guy like Ryan Miller play at that level is a great role model for me."

Tonight, the Americans return to the ice to play Germany. They called off practice Wednesday. Campbell said they're "kind of banged up," so they took advantage of a day with no game to rest and recuperate. Later in the afternoon, they planned to take in a movie for a little team bonding.

"We're going to see 'The Fighter,' " Campbell said.

e-mail: jsullivan@buffnews.com

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