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U.S. powers through ice issues at New Era Field practice

Team USA's practice at New Era Field on Wednesday was a testament to the difficulty of keeping ice in good condition in 12-degree weather.

Players and staff placed water bottles over divots in the ice throughout practice, steering skaters away from particularly beat up areas. There were around 10 scattered around the rink when the Zamboni was called out.

Defenseman Quinn Hughes fell backward at the blue line while the players chatted in between drills, tripping on an undiscovered crack. A few teammates laughed until they realized what caused his tumble.

At one point, about half the American roster was on its knees trying to fix imperfections in the ice.

The possibility of players losing balance, especially when you factor in defensemen skating backward, is a worrisome side effect of an outdoor hockey game. However, no one seemed particularly concerned about the ice playing a negative factor in Friday's World Junior Championship contest against Canada, including U.S. coach Bob Motzko.

"You're going to get that the first time out," Motzko said. "It was fast, though, when we got her going. They'll have it ready to go here in two days."

Unfortunately for the ice keepers, Friday's forecast is quite similar to Wednesday's. The Weather Channel calls for a high of 18 degrees and low of 12.

Players came prepared for frigid conditions, with most donning balaclavas to protect their ears. Goalie Jeremy Swayman wore a tuque, a Winter Classic tradition since Ryan Miller sported one with the Buffalo Sabres 10 years ago.

"It's a pretty chilly breeze, but it's actually really refreshing," said Casey Mittelstadt, the only Sabres prospect on the U.S. team. "It feels really good to get moving and get some fresh air while you're out there. At first it's really chilly, but it grows on you."

Mittelstadt would know, being one of the few members on the team with outdoor game experience. He played in one last year at the high school level in Stillwater, Minn.

"That was one of my favorite games I've ever played in," Mittelstadt said. "Our game came later and it warmed up a little bit and started snowing a little bit. It honestly ended up being a perfect day and a perfect atmosphere."

Friday's matchup is obviously on a bigger stage, something players got a glimpse of while looking up at the 71,000-seat bowl. Though the team ran drills, Wednesday was far from a normal practice.

Defenseman Ryan Lindgren called it a throwback to his days growing up in Minnesota. Forward Max Jones, who appealed to the local base by writing "Bills Mafia" on his eye black, said the atmosphere reminded him of the 1999 pond hockey movie "Mystery, Alaska."

Motzko stressed the value of players loosening up for a day after nearly two weeks in hotels.

"They're acting like kids again," Motzko said. "We all were. ... I was taken aback. I've never been in one before. You walk out there the first time and it was a little bit of a wow moment."

With the novelty of the practice location and friends and family on hand to take photos, no one would blame the Americans for looking ahead to the rivalry game billed as the crown jewel of the preliminary round of the tournament.

Motzko said the staff fights that urge by constantly asking the team who the next opponent on the schedule is. The Americans still have an 8 p.m. Thursday game against Slovakia to worry about before playing the Canadians 19 hours later. Forward Kieffer Bellows said the quick turnaround could actually benefit the U.S.

"You kind of don't get out of that game rhythm," Bellows said. "I think that will work well with our team. We're a fast team that loves to go, go, go."

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