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Hockey: Lawson takes bronze out of Scandinavian trip

Kyle Cassily | Friday, January 26, 2007

Irish defenseman Kyle Lawson brought home a little souvenir from his three-week visit to central Sweden over break, but the memento has sat mostly in a dresser drawer since he returned.

The bronze medal that the freshman won Jan. 5 at the IIHF World Junior U-20 Championship in Lake Siljan, Sweden as the alternate captain of the U.S. Junior National Team will, however, leave the drawer and reappear on campus before this weekend’s series against Miami.

“It’s actually coming down this weekend, a couple of the coaches asked to see it,” Lawson said. “So my mom is bringing it down for all the guys to see.”

The bronze will make the trip from his home outside of Detroit, but it is not Lawson’s first, or best, award in international play – he won the gold with the U.S. Under-18s in the Czech Republic in 2005. This time in the Old Continent, Lawson and the Americans fell out of contention for the gold with a 2-1 shootout loss to the Canadians in relegation play, but took the consolation with a 2-1 win over host Sweden.

“It was by far the best level of hockey that I’ve ever played at,” Lawson said. “It’s not a very physical game, but just the transition and the talent level of the players there is unbelievable. I don’t know how many top-end draft picks were there.”

The adjustment from the more physical, less fluid and in-your-face style of hockey in North America to the fast, stylish European hockey was made easier by team practices in the week leading up to the tournament after the national players gathered Dec. 17 in Chicago to be fitted for the red, white and blue uniforms and ship out to Scandinavia, Lawson said.

It was when the time came to return to the States and American college hockey that Lawson first struggled, if only temporarily. The newcomer on the Irish blue line has three goals and 10 assists with a 17 plus/minus ratio for the nation’s second-stingiest defense.

“When I came back here against Lake [Superior] State, they wanted to play it physical, grind it out game – where I was used to up and down the ice,” Lawson said.

Lawson took more than a medal and a newfound dislike of Swedish cuisine home from his trip. He also gained new perspectives on the game from both the Europeans and his defensive partner and roommate on the trip – Michigan defenseman Jack Johnson.

“Work on my skating, more than ever,” Lawson said of his European education. “Just the speed of that game, especially the way they are reffing the games now in the new NHL, as far as any stick, hold, grab and clutch – it’s completely gone.”

When Lawson was assigned to the same log cabin along the wooded slopes of the mountains bordering Lake Siljan with the Wolverines’ Johnson, it was far from the first time the pair has met. The two CCHA defensemen played youth hockey together for a time with Honeybaked Hockey in the Detroit area and then later with the National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor.

Johnson, one of the premiere defensemen in college hockey, encouraged Lawson to hit more, especially against the Europeans. But the Wolverine would only say that he would see the Irish again, if Lawson brought up the two-game Irish sweep of Michigan a week before the Junior Championship, Lawson said.

“[Johnson’s] obviously going to play in the NHL, possibly next year,” Lawson said. “He has potential to be a superstar in that league, so his talent level makes my job a lot easier.”

Lawson was named an alternate captain for the Americans by head coach Ron Rolston soon after the team gathered in Chicago, but he said the ‘A’ on his chest was also made a lot easier by the elite talent around him.

“There were so many leaders on that team, it was just really a letter,” Lawson said. “There’s so many good guys and good players over there, that we were all leaders.”

The intense pre-game preparation during which the team reviewed video of every country to know what the Europeans and Canadians – eventual tournament champions – would throw at them, was enough to prepare the Americans for any unfamiliar system faced – but some things just can’t be seen through video.

“If you say something to one of the European kids, you don’t always speak their language, but they know how to speak English,” Lawson said with a laugh. “If you say something about their mom, their brothers or their sisters, you’ll get an F-bomb back at you. They definitely know swear words and everything. I said something to one kid, and he goes, ‘I’ll kill your family’.”

In the end, the Americans earned their fifth medal in the championship and held a muted celebration in their cabins the night before an early flight out of Stockholm back to America. Lawson exchanged his country’s sweater for his school’s upon his return and jumped back onto the Irish blue line in time for the Lake Superior sweep. But perhaps it won’t be the last time the freshman skates for America – there’s always the Olympics.

“To see the level of that play and to spend the time with those type of people at that level, of that character, is a great experience,” Lawson said. “Any time you get to wear the jersey is just an honor to represent your country.”