UFA, Russia — There’s no question who Rick and Barb Rankin will be cheering for when Team USA faces Canada on Sunday at the world junior championships.
The couple has a number of American flags proudly displayed in their Beaverton, Ore., home roughly 13 kilometers west of Portland. Rick has worked with the U.S. Army and has been stationed in Afghanistan in the past.
They serve as billets for Canadian forward Ty Rattie and American defenceman Seth Jones, who are teammates for the Western Hockey League’s Portland Winterhawks.
Before he left for the tournament, Rattie said Barb had a message for him.
“She just said ‘Good luck and I hope you win silver and the U.S. wins gold,’” Rattie said. “I heard that a lot when I was in the U.S.”
There’s no hiding loyalties when it comes to world junior hockey, and Rattie wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I know [Barb] is cheering for the U.S., she’s told me already,” said the native of Airdrie, Alta. “But that’s understandable, they’re U.S. born and my billet dad [Rick] is a U.S. Army guy. It’s fine by me – we’re still looking to win though.”
Jones, one of the top ranked players for the 2013 draft, drives with Rattie to the rink everyday so the stakes are even higher for the pair when it comes to bragging rights.
“Yeah, but he’s a good guy,” said Jones of Rattie. “It’ll be a lot of fun in the house whichever way it goes and it should be a really fun game.”
The two friends travelled on the same flight to Finland together, but sat apart at the airport, because, apparently, there’s no fraternizing with the enemy in international hockey.
“It’s so weird to see your best friend and roommate and not be able to talk to him,” Rattie said. “I play for Canada and he plays for the U.S.A and it’s a big rivalry.”
The Americans are looking for redemption after an embarrassing seventh place finish at last year’s tournament. Goaltender John Gibson made one start at the 2012 tournament in Edmonton during the round-robin in a 4-1 loss to Finland – which was the start of the end for Team USA.
“Not too many people get second chances and I was lucky enough to get one,” said Gibson, who will start against Canada on Sunday. “I’m trying to make the most of it.”
He said everyone returning from that team is looking to prove people wrong and show that the U.S. is still among the world junior elite.
“They expect a gold; they expect a medal,” said Gibson of fans in the U.S. “Last year we let the country down, so there’s obviously more pressure this year to do better and prove that we can play.”
After last year’s disappointing finish, Gibson returned to play with the Ontario Hockey League’s Kitchener Rangers. It was Rangers head coach Steve Spott, the current coach of Team Canada, that helped rebuild his confidence.
“I’m the president of the John Gibson fan club,” Spott said. “But I won’t be [on Sunday] night.”
The Canadians will be playing with 11 forwards against the U.S. after the International Ice Hockey Federation suspended JC Lipon one game for his hit to the head of Slovakia’s Tomas Mikus on Friday.
“I’ve been watching [the video] a million times,” Lipon said. “It would have been probably a roughing penalty in the [Canadian Hockey League]. Every time you go in for a hit I guess you’ve got to be ready to pay the price with how things are being called.”
The Kamloops Blazers forward said he was particularly disappointed that Mikus, who had a lengthy respite on the ice after the hit, didn’t miss a shift and came back to score a goal on the ensuing power play.
“None of us go down like that and embellish stuff,” said the 19-year-old. “But you know if that’s what you need to do to get a major around here, there’s something wrong with that I think.”
Canada is already without Boone Jenner, who was suspended three games for his hit on Sweden’s Jesper Petterson in pre-tournament play. Spott’s squad has had a lot of difficulty adjusting their game to the international officiating.
“It’s the old stove analogy, where you touch it and you get burned,” Spott said. “So you have to stay away from it. We’ve preached it. We’ve spoken about it. But ultimately the players have to understand that there are going to be consequences and that a two-minute minor back home may be a suspension over here.”
As a result of the suspensions, Spott will be forced once again to juggle his lines, which means more ice time for players like 17-year-old Nathan MacKinnon. MacKinnon and fellow Halifax Mooseheads star Jonathan Drouin will setup a nice subplot with Jones since they have the potential to be the top three picks at the NHL draft in June.
“[MacKinnon] is going to be a real high draft pick,” Rattie said. “Either him or [Jones] are going to go first overall or Drouin even, too. [MacKinnon] you can tell what he’s going to do on the ice, but the opponents can’t and that’s what makes him so good. He’s so deceptive.”
Having played with Jones in Portland, Rattie knows how good the defensive prospect is as well.
“He’s a real athletic guy,” Rattie said of Jones. “Hockey, you can’t beat him one-on-one and he’s going to beat you one-on-one. He’s an all-round player and he’s something that I’ve never seen as a17-year-old that’s for sure.”
[Slideshow: U.S. falls to Russia at world juniors]
It was growing up in Colorado as a fan of the Avalanche that helped cement Jones’ hockey future. He said that he’s never really tried out basketball despite the fact his father, former NBA player Popeye Jones, is now an assistant coach with the Brooklyn Nets. There was a time when his dad tried to dissuade him from playing hockey, but eventually the retired basketballer became a fan too.
“He really likes the sport,” said Seth Jones. “He loves the fast-paced tempo and the physical play.”
Once he and Rattie get back to Portland, they have a date circled on their calendar at home – when Popeye’s Nets come to play the Portland Trailblazers.
And depending on how the rivalry between Canada and the U.S. plays out on the ice, the Rankin family might be getting something else to hang by that calendar, courtesy of Rattie.
“I might have to invest in a Canadian flag and bring it back home.”