When Team USA was preparing its final roster, most of the media attention for the blueline went to names such as Winnipeg Jets first-rounder Jacob Trouba and 2013 NHL draft prospect Seth Jones, the consensus No. 1 defenseman available and perhaps the first pick overall.
Jake McCabe’s name was in the mix, but was clearly much more important to the coaching staff, which handed him the captaincy for what would turn out to be the gold medal squad in Ufa.
The decision-making process stretched back to what the brass had seen at its summer training camp in Lake Placid, N.Y., and looks like a stroke of genius in retrospect: Not only was McCabe a capable captain, but his play netted him a spot on the tournament’s all-star team, as voted by international press.
“He says the right things at the right time and carries himself very well,” says Team USA coach Phil Housley, “which is what a captain should do.”
The University of Wisconsin sophomore and Buffalo Sabres prospect characterized himself as a leader who straddles the line between leading by example and being vocal. “I’m a team guy,” McCabe says. “I’m not afraid to block shots and the penalty kill was a big role for me in the tournament. But I’m going to speak up when necessary. I’ll be that guy.”
McCabe’s impact on the ice was felt greatly during the medal round, especially in the Americans’ 5-1 erasing of Canada in the semifinal. He potted the first two goals of the game off screened point shots, but also snuffed out any possibility of a Canadian comeback by dominating puck play in the defensive zone alongside his partner, Jones.
While McCabe and Trouba were named to the all-star team, Jones likely would have been third if such a spot existed. “As young as he is, he was a leader for us,” McCabe says.
Despite the box scores, Team USA didn’t simply waltz to the gold medal. Philadelphia Flyers pick Shayne Gostisbehere was suspended for the quarterfinal after a seemingly innocuous poke to the undercarriage of Slovakia’s Matus Matis and never really got his groove back after returning. That’s when McCabe put his game into overdrive. “You can see it at Wisconsin, he plays a lot there,” Housley says. “Power play, penalty kill – he plays in all situations. And when ‘Ghost’ went out, he stepped up and really was a fixture on the power play. He can bring offense to the defense.”
While the NCAA’s Badgers still churn out NHL talent (D-men Justin Schultz and Jake Gardiner being the latest prodigies) thanks to the program built by coach Mike Eaves, they’ve struggled in the win column recently. This year was a particular trial with highly anticipated freshman power forward Nic Kerdiles suspended 10 games right off the hop for not paying back his family advisor for a hotel bill quickly enough. Then junior Mark Zengerle, who led the Badgers in scoring last season with 50 points in 37 games, broke a finger and assistant coach Bill Butters quit.
Wisconsin has a big climb if it hopes to make the WCHA playoffs for the final time before moving on to the Big Ten next season. “It was too bad, we faced a lot of adversity,” McCabe says. “We kept using the terminology of having the wind against our ship. You can’t turn a ship around on a dime. It’s going to take time. But we were unbeaten in our last six games going into the holiday break.”
Now that McCabe is back in Madison, that ship has another valuable member back onboard. Team USA found out what he could do at the world juniors. Now it’s Wisconsin’s turn to see if he can inspire another great run to glory.