By Bill Whitehead
It’s hard to beat covering the Florida Panthers and the NHL, but let’s face it, while covering the Cats last season the low points exceeded the highlights by a margin as wide as a blowout in cricket. Jonathan Huberdeau’s Calder-winning performance over 48 games and winning some shootouts for a change made me perk up, but very little else quickened the heart rate.
In fact, the best hockey I enjoyed last season started the day after Christmas and carried over into January – the IIHF World Junior Championship. I was one of the few who set the alarm for 3:45 a.m. here in South Florida, made a pot of coffee and was enjoying the hockey while most in the Sunshine State still had a couple of hours left in dreamland. The 2014 WJC, which will be held in Malmo, Sweden, has a tough act to follow. This year’s WJC was a fantastic experience whose gold-winning moments were outlined in glorious red, white and blue – with a healthy splash of the Panthers’ scarlet as well.
Panthers prospect Vincent Trocheck had a good time as well, despite having to go all the way to Ufa, Russia, to win a gold medal. When I told him I was one of those Yanks getting up at that ridiculous hour to cheer on Team USA, his response was genuine: “Thank you. I appreciate that.”
“It was an extremely long season,” Trocheck said. “No breaks throughout the whole season. It started early and ended late. Longest in my OHL career, at least. I got two days off to go home after the World Juniors. After Dec. 15, it was just a full-out sprint.”
It wasn’t only “Go, go, go” for the Pittsburgh native in getting to Russia; Trocheck, a third-round pick by Florida two years ago in Minnesota, went to play and produce. He had an assist and won almost 74 percent of his faceoffs in Team USA’s 5-1 semifinal win over Canada. In the title game, he had an assist and capped off the tournament in grand fashion as Sweden was pressing with its net empty and down by a goal.
“Just to be able to go over there at all is an honor, but (to win) is easily, easily my proudest moment as a player. To have the USA crest on my chest is a huge honor,” said Trocheck, who turned 20 during camp.
Trocheck said the line featuring him, Rocco Grimaldi and Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Tyler Biggs continued to get better and better during the championship game as Team USA trailed 1-0. Eventually, it paid off with a pair of goals from Grimaldi, who had struggled with bad luck during the tournament, most notably missing by hitting two posts on one shot in the final game.
A line featuring a Vinny and a Rocco sounds like something out of a Martin Scorsese film. That couldn’t go wrong, right?
“(Rocco) struggled a little bit throughout the tournament and got moved down to the 3rd and 4th line. He was the 13th forward for one game. Stuff like that happens because it’s a short tournament. We knew he was a great player and the coaches did, too, so they gave him a new opportunity in the gold medal game, and he was ready to play,” stated Trocheck.
Grimaldi said he just had to keep his head up and try to persevere. His tying goal beat Swedish goalie Niklas Lundstrom on the short side from a bad angle and through a small opening. The winning goal bounced off Grimaldi following a high slap shot by Winnipeg Jets defenseman Jacob Trouba.
Rocco ties it with hard work:
“It was definitely an up-and-down tournament for me,” said Grimaldi, who has played two years at the University of North Dakota. “It really was a test of my character and how I am as a person. It really grew me as a player and a person. I got determined, and it paid off. It was a huge blessing.
I got put with Vinny (Trocheck) in a game in the quarters, and me, him and (Tyler) Biggs were doing good things but weren’t scoring despite some good opportunities. In the final game, the both of us kind of broke out. We battled through adversity, were there when our team needed us and won the gold.”
That’s the kind of character and end result Dale Tallon and the Florida Panthers want.