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January 21, 2021

DUBobbyBrink5.jpg 

 Bobby Brink (DU Photo)
 

Bobby Brink was on the ice at the Rogers Center in Edmonton, anxiously waiting for the clock to reach all zeroes.

"I kind of watched the last few seconds," the University of Denver sophomore winger said on the phone from Omaha Friday. "I was just so excited. I made sure to throw my stick and gloves and helmet as high as I could in the air and jumped into the pile."
 
It was January 5, and Brink and his USA teammates were celebrating their 2-0 win over Canada -- captained by soon-to-be Avalanche defenseman Bo Byram -- in the gold-medal game of the World Junior (U-20) Championships.
 
That's the annual tournament staged by the International Ice Hockey Federation. For a 12-day stretch, it's in the sport's spotlight, even in the years when the NHL is playing at the time. Brink also played for the USA's non-medal team in the 2020 WJC in the Czech Republic, interrupting his freshman season at DU. This year's tournament was more rewarding. Rewarding as in: Gold.    
 
Brink, 19, had two goals and four assists in seven WJC games, playing on a line with John Farinacci of Harvard and Brett Berard of Providence. Brink was a second-round Flyers draft pick and Farinacci was a third-round choice of the Coyotes, both in 2019; and Berard went to the Rangers in the fifth round last year.  
 
"I thought I had a good tournament," Brink said. "I kind of embraced my role and felt like I had to be one of the hardest-working players out there. I did that and as a line, I think we were rewarded. We knew exactly what we needed to do. That's one thing that coach (Nate) Leaman did really well, was kind of letting everyone know exactly what he needed from them. Everyone bought into that. We had to bring energy every night, be hard on the forecheck, create turnovers and get to the net hard."        
 
Boston College goalie Spencer Knight, a Panthers draftee, had the 34-save shutout for the USA in the championship game.

After the celebration and awards ceremony on the ice, the Americans got really wild. (Not.) They returned to the tournament's nearby bubble hotel, Sutton Place. 

"It was a little bit of a weird situation," Brink said. "We were in a bubble and weren't allowed to see many people. We just hung out in the food room after and just had a little fun with the guys before we all went our separate ways." 
 
Regardless of the nation involved, the relatively brief WJC experience -- especially if it leads to gold -- tends to forge bonds among the players that can last through pro careers ... and even beyond.
 
"The World Juniors are one of the most special tournaments you can play in," Brink said. "Being able to go there and win a championship is something very few people can say they've done. It's one of the cooler things that I've ever experienced, and especially after last year's finish, it was even more special. Winning World Juniors is a lifetime thing you carry with you. People can say they have it in their bag. Ands when you win one with a group of guys, you are in history together forever. You're lifelong friends because you shared special moments. As a group, we were so close, even if we didn't win. I'll be friends forever with those guys."      
 
From Minnetonka, a suburb of Minneapolis, Brink came to DU after two seasons of junior hockey with the USHL's Sioux City Musketeers and brief stints with national U-18 and U-17 teams.       

As a freshman, he had 11 goals in 28 games for the Pioneers.    
 
DUBobbyBrink.jpg
After returning to DU two weeks ago following the WJC, and showing his gold medal to his teammates, it was back to school and practice. He was in the Pioneers' lineup in their split against North Dakota at Magness Arena last weekend. 

Next, the Pioneers are at Omaha on Saturday and Sunday. 
 
One of Brink's WJC teammates, Boston College defenseman Drew Helleson, was an Avalanche second-round choice in 2019. Colorado held the draft rights to three players on Canada's WJC roster -- Byram, who made his NHL debut at Los Angeles Thursday; Boston College center Alex Newhook; and Halifax Mooseheads defenseman Justin Barron. Byram went fourth overall and Newhook 16th overall in 2019, while Barron was the 25th overall choice in the first round in 2020. 
 
The college players, including Brink, are Back to School.

This season's Pioneers go into the series at Omaha with a 5-8-1 record, all in National Collegiate Hockey Conference play, and largely fashioned in their 10-game stay in the league's bubble conditions at Omaha in December, when DU was out of school for the month.    
 
Brink said it hasn't been difficult to get cranked up about returning to the college game.

"We have a really good group here," he said. "I think we're looking to do special things here and win a national championship. College is a very different game than the style of game at the World Juniors, but I've dreamed of winning a national championship since I was a young kid. That's very similar to the World Juniors, it's such a special thing. That's the motivation that helped me come back and want to do my best here, too."   

The obvious comparison involving Brink is with former Pioneers center Troy Terry, the Denver-area native who also was on a WJC gold-medal team as a DU sophomore in early 2017. At that tournament, he became an international hockey celebrity with his uncanny success on shootout penalty shots. Then he played on the U.S. Olympic team as a junior in 2018, the first Olympics in 24 years without the NHL shutting down and allowing its players to represent their nations. Terry signed with the Anaheim Ducks after that junior season and will face the Avs Friday and Sunday.      
   
(Read my interview with Troy Terry from the February 2018 issue of Mile High Sports Magazine here.) 

"He's a big deal here at Denver," Brink said of Terry. "He's done some special things here. When you think of Denver hockey, you kind of think of Troy Terry, what he did at World Juniors and what he did here. I've never spoken to him, but he's a guy you look up to."

DU coach David Carle was an assistant to Jim Montgomery during Terry's stint with the Pioneers.
 
"Absolutely, it's a great experience for Bob to go through, to be a part of a championship team at the World Juniors," Carle told me Thursday from one of the Pioneers' buses en-route to Omaha. "I think it did wonders for Troy's confidence, and I think it does the same for Bob in coming back from World Juniors. You notice a little pep in his step. It's great to see. He was a confident kid going in, but to be a two-year World Junior player and to cap it off by winning gold that he's a part of, it's done a lot for him."    
 
In five games with the Pioneers this season, Brink has no goals and four assists. He played only the first three games of the season at Omaha before reporting to the WJC team's camp in Michigan, farther in advance than in the past. It has been a unique season for the NCHC, especially given its early bubble approach, and Brink's experience -- including a tournament-wide bubble in Edmonton -- has been challenging in a different way.      
 
"He's been in five of our first 14 games," Carle said. "He's had impact in those five, but for him to get in the rhythm of playing for us from here on out I think will be really healthy for him. He obviously adds a big boost to our lineup. When you're planning on having a player for the first part of the season, then are missing him for longer than normal and then getting him back ... I think he's acclimating back with this team. He made an impact on those games with North Dakota."
 
I asked Carle about how Brink compares to previous Pioneer standouts as sophomores, and he mentioned Terry, Dylan Gambrell of the Sharks and Henrik Borgstrom of the Panthers.

"I think he's right there," Carle said. "He makes an impact when he's on the ice. It's not every shift right now. Not yet. But it's more consistent than it was as a freshman. You're seeing growth being added to his game, he's on the penalty kill a little bit, which Terry and Gambrell and Borgstrom kind of added to their repertoires in their sophomore years. So he's becoming an all-situations player and his game's continuing to grow. It's not where it's going to be as a finished product yet, but he's an impactful player at our level right now, for sure. I think he can be compared to those other guys in their sophomore years."