ST. CLOUD, Minn. -- Few hockey players get an opportunity to participate in the IIHF World Junior Championships once. Fewer still get the opportunity to take part in the tournament twice for the top under-20 players.
St. Cloud State University men's hockey center Ryan Poehling is in Team USA's training camp and likely will be participating in his second straight world juniors championships. So what did he learn from his experience last year in Buffalo, N.Y?
"I'm not going to bring as many clothes because they give you so much," said Poehling, who will turn 20 on Jan. 3. "I think I did a good job of taking care of my body and staying hydrated.
"The biggest thing is that when you play that many games, you've got to keep stretching and being loose. Keeping your body intact is the biggest challenge."
The Americans won the bronze medal in last year's tournament under head coach Bob Motzko, an unprecedented third straight year for Team USA bringing home a medal. The quest for a fourth straight medal in the 10-team tournament begins when Team USA plays Slovakia at 5:30 p.m. Dec. 26 in the opening round in Victoria, British Columbia (NHL Network).
"He played very well and the thing about Ryan is you can play him in all situations," Motzko said. "He can kill penalties, was on the power play and he was playing against the other team's top players. Coming back as a veteran, he can take on all those roles and he can pick up the offensive role, too."
Poehling had a goal and two assists and played in all seven of Team USA's games in 11 days. Because of the tournament, Poehling missed three St. Cloud State games and then did not have a goal or assist and was a minus-2 in his first two games back.
"When you're done with that tournament, it feels like the end of the season because you're playing playoffs," he said. "The body hurts and there is a playoff mindset that you put yourself in.
"When I came back, I was in a little bit of a slump. I was a little off, mostly with my mindset. I learned from that. I play for the St. Cloud State Huskies and they need you and you need them."
Motzko, who coached Poehling for two seasons at St. Cloud State, said that there were many benefits to his world junior championships experience.
"From a growth standpoint, being exposed to that level of hockey is a big one," Motzko said. "His confidence level went up after being on the world stage with some of the top players on the world stage and being right there with them.
"He belonged there and excelled there. That's validation for a young guy's career and Ryan has a great personality and competitive spirit."
Looking to lead
At last year's tournament, Poehling was one of the younger players on Team USA's roster. This time around, he expects to fill a leadership role.
But his bonding time with the American roster is going to mostly take place during training camp. Poehling, a first-round draft pick (25th overall) of the Montreal Canadiens in 2017, had to miss Team USA's camp over the summer because he was recovering from surgery to have his tonsils removed and for a deviated septum.
"This year, being a year older, I will be putting myself in a leadership role and it's harder to do that when you're not playing the games with the other guys," he said. "This summer, I tried to get the guys together, but it's harder when you're not on the ice with them."
Poehling, though, said that it helps that he has played with a number of players before. Defensemen Mikey Anderson (University of Minnesota Duluth), Quinn Hughes (Michigan) and Dylan Samberg (UMD) and forward Josh Norris (Michigan) all played on the bronze medal team last year and are on the preliminary roster.
Poehling also played with a number of the US National Development Program players for Team USA in the Under-18 world championships in 2017.
"I know a lot of the guys and they're great guys and it won't be too hard for us to meld together," he said.
Back for another NCAA run
Like most top draft picks, Poehling had the option to sign and play professionally after last season. Poehling said before the postseason last season that he had planned to return for his junior season.
The Huskies were the No. 1 seed in NCAA Division I going into the national tournament, but got beat 4-1 by Air Force. A few days later, Motzko left St. Cloud State to become the head coach at the University of Minnesota.
Poehling, though, did not waiver on returning.
"No, not at all," he said. "I'm still only 19 years old and the NHL isn't a development league. When you get there, you've got to be ready to play.
"This gives me a chance to play 30-some games, practice 4-5 days a week and work out," said Poehling, whose twin brothers, Jack and Nick, are wings for the Huskies. "I'm so young, it's important for me to get as much as I can out of being in college."
That was good news for new St. Cloud State coach Brett Larson, a former Minnesota Duluth assistant coach.
"Right when I got the job (April 13), he told me he was coming (back) and wanted to keep developing," Larson said.
Larson has been pleased with what he has seen out of Poehling in the first half of the season. Poehling leads the team in assists (14), is second in points (17) and is a plus-7 in 16 games.
"He's maybe a kid who could act like he knows everything with a new coach coming in, but he's the exact opposite," Larson said. "He's the kind of guy who is trying to learn and get better.
"That tells me that he has a really high-end ceiling because he's willing to keep working and keep learning, even though he's already really talented."
As a sophomore, Poehling had 14 goals, 17 assists and was a plus-4 in 36 games. So what is Poehling working on this season?
"I thought I started off slow and I wasn't doing a lot of little things right," said Poehling, who had five points in his first six games. "When we played Colorado College (Nov. 2-3), I started attacking and realizing I needed to make my own plays and go more direct to the net.
"I've prided myself in being a complete player. I want to get more pucks to the net and get more direct to the net to get more opportunities for me and my teammates. I can improve on that."
Getting to the next level
Larson said that he is enjoying working with the 6-foot-2, 200-pound center and has him on both power-play and penalty-kill units.
"Really, the only things he needs to keep working on are his physical development and strength to play at the highest levels," said Larson, who played professionally in North America and in Europe. "That's so he can play with all those guys who are big and strong. The rest of the package is there.
"He has the total package with size, skating, hands and offensive ability. There's not a lot of guys that have that total package ... He's dangerous whenever he has the puck. He has such quick hands for a big guy that, even in traffic, he's got a strong stick. He can make a lot of little plays under pressure, which is pretty special for a guy his size."
Those are some of the attributes that got the attention of NHL scouts. As with most first-round picks, there's plenty that the Canadiens like about Poehling.
"First and foremost is his character -- he's a very mature young man, serious about his game, his team and how he competes," said Rob Ramage, a former NHL defenseman and Montreal's director of player development. "The guy wants to be a factor in every game.
"He's a complete player, plays both ends of the rink. There's things he does defensively that usually aren't apparent in a younger player. That's impressive because it's not always fun stuff to defend. He's very responsible and takes great pride in it."
Of course, the offensive side of him doesn't hurt. Ramage said that the Canadiens project him playing center when he gets to the NHL.
"His vision and he has a knack of knowing what to do with the puck before he gets it," Ramage said of what impresses him. "He shoots the puck well. There's usually a thing with younger players needing to shoot the puck more (25 shots in 16 games this season). This is my theory: He's got two older brothers and it got drilled into him at a very young age to get them the puck. I had a brother and when I was on the ice with him, he wanted it.
"That's his unselfish nature. That will come. A lot of young players don't shoot the puck. They just need to learn that it's not being selfish to shoot the puck when they have a good scoring opportunity."
Before he gets to the pros, Poehling said he is enjoying playing for Larson. St. Cloud State is 13-1-2 and ranked No. 1 in both national polls at the holiday break.
Poehling graduated a year early from Lakeville North High School to play at St. Cloud State with his brothers and for Motzko.
"This is nothing against Bob, but sometimes a new voice can help a team," Poehling said. "The vibe has completely changed, not that there was a bad vibe before this.
"Coach Larson has done a great job. He gets on us about little things and knows about winning championships," Poehling said of Larson, who was on the UMD staffs that won national titles in 2011 and last season. "Everybody respects him and it helps us play for each other."
SCHEDULE FOR TEAM USA AT WORLD CHAMPIONSHIPS
(at Save-On-Foods Memorial Centre, Victoria, British Columbia)
(on NHL Network)
Dec. 26 -- vs. Slovakia, 5:30 p.m.
Dec. 28 -- vs. Kazakhstan, 9:30 p.m.
Dec. 29 -- vs. Sweden, 9:30 p.m.
Dec. 31 -- vs. Finland, 9:30 p.m.
Jan. 2 -- Quarterfinals, TBA
Jan. 4 -- Semifinals, TBA
Jan. 5 -- Bronze medal game, 3 p.m.; Gold medal game, 7 p.m.