Most hockey players will never get to wear a USA Hockey sweater. Scott Balboni knows it. He played four years of Division I hockey at Providence College on a full scholarship and never got the opportunity to don the Red, White and Blue. But this winter, he’ll lead a group of 22 college student-athletes through a once in a lifetime experience: The 2013 Winter World University Games.
USA Hockey sat down with Balboni, the former Penn State University coach, to discuss the Winter Worlds, the growth of ACHA hockey and the treasured sweater.
USA Hockey: You’ve served as an assistant coach the last two tournaments. How does it feel to be named head coach this time around?
Scott Balboni: I’m extremely excited to be selected as the head coach. I was certainly honored when USA Hockey asked me. More than honored to do it and be a part of it.
USA Hockey: The two previous World University Games were held in China and Turkey. Now you’re heading to Italy. That’s a nice perk!
Scott Balboni: Yeah! It’s really fun. The tournament itself is great for student-athletes at the ACHA level to get some international experience that a lot of them are not going to get exposed to in any other scenario. They get the academic and life experience that comes with seeing different areas of the countries and experiencing other cultures, but also get to play some international hockey at a high level. For most of them, this will be the only opportunity for them to ever do something like that.
USA Hockey: Is being able to travel across the world to play hockey unique to this sport and the opportunities provided by the ACHA and USA Hockey?
Scott Balboni: Yes, for sure. When I talk to players, I talk about the unprecedented opportunity and ability to wear a USA Hockey sweater at any level. I was fortunate enough to play at Providence College on a full ride and I never wore a USA sweater at any event during my career. To be able to wear that USA sweater and have that camaraderie is something they’re going to enjoy for the rest of their lives. That opportunity to play for a national university team just doesn’t present itself often, whether it’s players at the high school levels or even NHL players.
USA Hockey: When you’re telling the players this, what’s their reaction? How do you not get pumped up just talking about the USA sweater?
Scott Balboni: That’s exactly it. They get very excited about it. Fortunately, Ashley Bevan (senior director of adult hockey at USA Hockey) has done a great job continuing to grow this program. The experiences just keep getting better and better for the players and staff, but also for our team to put us in a position to get to the medal round and win a medal. That’s obviously a key goal for us heading over there.
USA Hockey: Are you doing anything differently with this year’s squad as you prepare?
Scott Balboni: One of the biggest things we’re doing this time is that we’re going over to Italy a couple days early so that we can play a European team or two before we start the world tournament. The biggest problem we’ve had is that we get together, practice, go through some scenarios and then put on a USA sweater and play a game in the world tournament. The players’ eyes are opened large and they’re looking around at what’s going on around them and focusing less on the actual game. Traditionally, that first game has been a difficult one for us because of those factors.
Ashley’s taken the next step for us. Now we can have a mini-camp over there and play some pro teams over there and hopefully take away those jitters of wearing the USA sweater and being a part of a U.S. National University Team.
USA Hockey: You mentioned Team USA continuing to improve every year. Is the overall quality of play increasing?
Scott Balboni: Absolutely. The ACHA as a whole has grown tremendously. I’ve been fortunate enough to be involved with it since 1997. Back then there were four or five very strong teams and then the level of competition dropped off tremendously after those teams. Through substantial growth over the years, the level of talent has followed. For this tournament, USA Hockey has worked very closely with the ACHA and continued to grow the experience to the point where we can invite the most talented group of players as a whole. The level of hockey from the ACHA as a whole is so much better and so much deeper and that’s helped us with this tournament.
USA Hockey: Tell us about your player selection process.
Scott Balboni: There are some very good teams over there. For us, it’s about putting together the right team, not necessarily the 22 leading scorers in the ACHA. We’re trying to take the right team together over there to compete.
USA Hockey: What other teams can we expect to be contenders?
Scott Balboni: The Canadian team is always very strong, depending on which province goes. They can be a little older with OHL, AHL or even NHL experience, so they’re very strong. The Russian team is also very good. One year, Jaromir Jagr’s KHL linemate was on the team. We’ve had some great battles with the Slovakian team the last few years. I’m excited to see what the Italian team will bring to the table.
USA Hockey: Do we have any captains named yet?
Scott Balboni: Not yet. I’m taking the C’s and the A’s with us and when we have our first few days of training camp, we’ll go through to find out who’s going to be that leader. I have some ideas but we’re going to wait until we get together and see how that plays out and then announce it over there.