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Jeff Jacobs: Tage Thompson Won For The USA, Plays For The Love Of Hockey

Before he got on his flight home from Montreal on Friday, Tage Thompson already had made something abundantly clear to UConn coach Mike Canvanaugh.

He was playing Saturday against Yale.

"I was set on it," Thompson said.

After he got off the flight? There was his dad Brent waiting to pick him up.

"We had a long talk about the tournament," Thompson said. "And the experience itself."

The tournament was great. The experience was the greatest. How could it not be great? Thompson played a nice role in Team USA's giddy run to the world junior hockey championship. The last game on Thursday night at Bell Centre had been an epic one. USA twice erased two-goal Canadian leads and Troy Terry ultimately clinched the title with a shootout goal. Thompson had an assist. The American joy jumped through the television screen.

"It was a lot of fun," Thompson said.

Standing inside the XL Center Saturday after a 4-2 loss to Yale — a score that flattered UConn in most every way — Thompson didn't sound like he was having a bunch of fun.

That is the beauty of hockey. That is the beast of the game. It is the endless grind. There isn't much time to enjoy victories, great or small. Sometimes there isn't any time. There's another game to be played.

So it was with Brent Thompson, too. As the UConn and Yale busses pulled away from the XL Center, there was the Bridgeport Sound Tigers bus in their place. Dad coaches the Sound Tigers and they had an AHL game against the Wolf Pack only a few hours after the college game on the same patch of Hartford ice.

"This wasn't an easy game for Tage to play at all today," Cavanaugh said. "I give him all the credit in the world for getting off the plane last night and showing up at the rink to play a hockey game. He's a hockey player. Was it his best game of the year? Probably not, but it certainly wasn't his worst either. He had a whole crew of guys who didn't play very well.

"You're playing in a tournament that is that intense. The world junior tournament, the best players in the world under 20, and you go from wearing a gold medal — it could have been very easy for him to say, 'Coach, I'm going to take today off.' But it doesn't surprise me. He loves being a hockey player. He loves playing at UConn."

On Thompson's first shift Saturday, he took a tough hit and landed hard on his tailbone. So much for the gold. So much for the joy. Enter the pain.

"Not a good feeling," Thompson said. "Got injected with some Novocain, trying to numb it up a little bit."

Thompson is UConn's leading scoring with 12 goals and 20 points in 19 games, but on this day he was scoreless, minus-2 and without a shot.

"I think that hit slowed him down," Cavanaugh said. "He has got to be tired, too. We're talking about three weeks going at it hard. He gave us everything he had today."

Of course, he did. He's a hockey player.

Workouts, a few preliminary games and then seven unrelenting games in 11 nights? Through round-robin play, quarterfinals, a semifinal shootout win over Russia and ultimately the finals? He had to have been gassed.

Thompson had one goal in the world juniors, a really nifty move in front of the net against Slovakia — no, it wasn't against Adam Huska. He finished the tournament with four assists.

"When you play in a tournament like that, when the stakes are so high and so many eyeballs are watching you, you learn you have to keep the game very simple," Cavanaugh said. "A turnover can cost you a tournament. I think it's really going to help him down the road playing under that type of pressure."

Huska, who played in five games for Slovakia at the world juniors, was excellent Saturday for UConn, which had been riding a five-game unbeaten streak. Nobody else, save maybe seniors Evan Richardson and Brian Morgan, was good. The shots were 12-0 only 11 minutes into the game yet Yale held only a 1-0 lead. In all, Yale held a 41-15 shooting bulge and Huska made all sorts of stops, breakaways, man-advantage breaks, deflections.

"Adam was great all game," Cavanaugh said.

Huska's Slovakian team also had been eliminated in the quarterfinals so he had more time to recover than Thompson. Yale was quicker on this day. Yale won battles for the puck. Yale controlled play start to finish. A 5-minute major penalty on UConn's Justin Howell for hitting Adam Larkin from behind led to two power-play goals in the second period and it was lights out.

Cavanaugh hated the loss, but he certainly doesn't hate UConn's body of work through an 8-7-6 start. Learn from it and flush it. That's the way Cavanaugh put it. That's hockey, on to the next game.

Yet somewhere between the next shift, the next game, the pain in his tailbone and the pain of a loss to Yale, there must be intense satisfaction for the kid from Orange. Brent Thompson, long-time pro before getting into coach, is from Canada. He pulled for Team USA on Thursday night. C'mon, you've got to root for your blood. He was thrilled for his son.

"It's a huge accomplishment for him and for our country," said UConn's Spencer Naas, who is from Minnesota. "We're really proud of Tage. It's huge for our program to send a couple of kids to that tournament. And to have someone win it for our country is pretty cool."

While the Huskies were in Arizona for the Desert Classic, they went out for dinner together and watched Team USA beat Slovakia. Thompson scored a goal.

"We went crazy," Naas said.

For the finals, Naas said he and his roommates were glued to the television.

"It was one of the best hockey games I'd ever watched," Naas said.

A few minutes into meeting with the media, Thompson finally managed a halfway smile. Yeah, it was great.

"Playing with the best guys in the world and achieving the goal we set, it's something I'll remember the rest of my life," Thompson said. "I'm proud of what we accomplished."

Thompson said the play in the world juniors was faster than college games. The puck moves quick. Players are always jumping. There's less time to make plays. College games, he said, are a little more physical, a little grittier.

"The biggest thing I took away from it was play your game," Thompson said. "If I'm going to make it at the next level [he was a first-round pick of the St. Louis Blues last year], I've got to make quicker plays and that comes with moving your feet faster and being ready when the puck comes to you.

"It's one of the best feelings in the world being selected to play for your country and bringing home the gold, especially against Canada playing in Canada, it was that much sweeter. Now it's back to business. I was excited to be back with my team. I was going to play. I love the game. I want to play every chance I get."

That's hockey. Good, gold and otherwise.

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