It sounds like the script from a Hollywood movie: after a heartbreaking loss to Canada a few days earlier, the U.S. national hockey team scored a game-winning overtime goal to upset the host country, silence a hostile crowd and earn the gold medal.
But for three Wisconsin men's hockey players—sophomore forward Derek Stepan, sophomore defenseman Jake Gardiner and freshman defenseman John Ramage—that is the dream they lived at the International Ice Hockey Federation's 2010 World Junior Championships.
Four minutes into overtime of the tournament's gold medal game, Canada caught the U.S. on an odd-man rush, forcing goaltender Jack Campbell to make a critical save. The rebound bounced out to Wisconsin freshman defender John Ramage and he dished the puck to Washington Capitals prospect John Carlson, who was heading up the ice.
Wisconsin sophomore forward and Team USA captain Derek Stepan said the game turned in an instant, describing the fast-paced play that won the U.S. its first World Juniors gold medal since 2004.
""I remember seeing Jack Campbell come up with a big save, and I just remember taking off, going ‘I'm going to go the other way and if he can get me the puck we're in good shape,'"" Stepan said. ""Then I saw that John Carlson was with me and I knew that, as soon as he opened up, I was like, ‘he's going to shoot this.' I was thinking to myself, ‘shoot, shoot, shoot!'""
""So he shot it, and it went in and then after that it was kind of a blur for the next five minutes or so.""
Flanked by Ramage and Stepan, Carlson streaked into the Canadian zone with a three-on-one advantage and fired the game winner past Canadian goalie Martin Jones. Team USA streamed from its bench and mobbed Carlson; minutes later Stepan accepted the tournament's trophy and the Americans accepted their medals and watched their flag rise at the Credit Union Centre in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.
What made Carlson's goal even more remarkable was that he wasn't even looking at the goal he scored on. Carlson, who currently plays for the Hershey Bears of the AHL, beat Jones by faking a pass to Stepan as they skated toward the goal, and only looked at his target once he had already shot.
""He never looked at the net, not once – he was looking at me the whole time,"" Stepan said of Carlson's goal. ""It was a great shot, exactly where it needed to be.""
Ramage and Stepan both said its ending made the game, which saw Canada come back from a two-goal deficit late in the third period, an instant classic and the stuff of legends.
""It was an unbelievable feeling just to know that we finally did it after three weeks of being there,"" Ramage said.
The win was especially sweet for the captain Stepan, the tournament's leading scorer, who said that just taking part in the event was a dream come true.
""It's an honor to begin with, just to wear the jersey, to have a letter on your chest is even better,"" he said. ""You've just got to try to do your best to fill the shoes of the guy who had it before you.""
When Stepan, Ramage and Gardiner returned to the team after the World Juniors, the three Badgers—as well as assistant coach Mike Osiecki—did so with the memory of a thrilling finish and amazing tournament.
As his career moves forward, Stepan said that gold medal game will stick with him. Asked to pick his favorite moment, he could not decide between Carlson's goal, hoisting the trophy or watching the American flag rise.
""All three of those,"" Stepan said. ""I don't think I could get a favorite one, but I think all three of them will be way up on my list for a long time.""