Brandon Carlo surprised his Tri-City Americans teammates by joining them at practice Wednesday afternoon.
They all knew he was coming back that afternoon from his stint with Team USA at the World Junior Championship, but they didn’t think it would be in time for practice.
“It was right around a month being gone,” Carlo said. “I’m really excited to be back and get the second half (of the Western Hockey League season) going. I really miss the guys when I’m gone. I jumped on the ice for practice. Not a lot of guys knew I was here. They saw me jump into the line, and they are like, ‘Whoa, where did you come from?’ It was pretty cool.”
It was like Christmas all over again for Parker Wotherspoon, Carlo’s defensive partner with the Americans.
“It’s a good feeling to have him back,” Wotherspoon said. “We have such great chemistry together. I expect that again in the next game. He surprised us on the ice today. The chemistry sparked right back up.”
Carlo, 19, missed 11 games, but none of his Tri-City teammates or coaches will hold it against him. The Americans went 5-6 in his absence.
“It’s good to get him back,” Tri-City coach Mike Williamson said. “We are proud of what he accomplished and the opportunity he had to represent the USA and win a medal. But we’re certainly glad he’s back to help us now.”
Carlo scored two goals with two assists and had a plus-9 rating over seven games in helping Team USA win bronze at the WJC in Helsinki, Finland.
“It was one of the most fun hockey experiences of my life,” Carlo said. “Going to another country and going through that experience was new for me. The hockey was obviously high caliber. I felt like I handled myself really well and played pretty good.
“That was a big stage to go onto and do that well. As for moving forward, that was really good for me, competing against those high-level athletes. Overall, it was a great experience. I will always remember that.”
It was the second WJC experience for Carlo, who played for Team USA when it finished fifth in 2015. And playing overseas certainly was different than when the event was in Canada last year.
“The food was different, and trying to communicate with others was a hard task, but overall it was a phenomenal tournament to play in,” Carlo said. “I was lucky enough to do it twice.”
The United States beat Sweden 8-3 in the bronze-medal game, this after dropping a 1-0 game to the Swedes in their second contest of the tournament.
“We couldn’t get a puck past their goalie in that first game when we lost to them,” Carlo said. “We had plenty of shots to do so. Overall, it was really nice to come into that bronze-medal game and play someone who beat you, compete against them and get that revenge.”
Team USA went 5-2 at the tournament, losing to Sweden and then 2-1 to Russia in the semifinals. The United States posted wins over Canada, Switzerland, Denmark, the Czech Republic and Sweden.
In a 4-1 win over Denmark, Carlo was named player of the game for Team USA and earned a nice razor, which he has yet to use.
“I did get a razor. Unfortunately, I haven’t had a chance to open it yet,” Carlo said. “We will see if I can get it open in the next couple of days. Regardless of what game it’s in, to be named player of the game in that tournament is an accomplishment. I was really excited for that razor.”
While the razor was cool, his bronze medal is the apple of his eye.
“The medal is still pretty cool to look at,” Carlo said. “I don’t think I have taken a day off of looking at it once or twice. It is just a phenomenal experience. To come away with a medal, it’s a hard task to do at that tournament.”
Carlo said his phone exploded with messages from family and friends after the tournament — but not as much as after he was drafted in the second round by the Boston Bruins in June.
He also heard from the Bruins, who were pleased with his efforts in Finland.
“I heard from all the development coaches there,” Carlo said. “That was really nice. With me being drafted there, that’s a huge compliment to hear them say I had a good tournament. That gives me a little extra confidence.”
While in Finland, Team USA participated in a time-honored tradition.
“Right after we finished up camp on the last day, we went to a smoke sauna,” Carlo said. “That is not something you get to experience much. We sat in the sauna, then jumped in the cold lake. That was a cool experience. A moment I won’t forget.”
The Americans (17-23-2-0, 36 points) went 2-3 on their recent trip that included stops in Seattle, Victoria, Kamloops and Kelowna.
Tri-City won in Seattle and the first of two games in Victoria before dropping the next three.
“It is great to be back,” Williamson said. “We had a lot of miles there on the bus. It was a good start to the trip, but not a great finish. I have to give the guys credit, they didn’t pack it in at all. They made some mental mistakes along the way, and that’s tough when you are on the road trying to win games. You have to play as close to mistake-free hockey as you can. We played well in Kamloops; we gave up a late goal to let that game slip through our fingers. In Kelowna, we had a good start, then we were chasing them the whole game.”
The Americans will host Saskatoon Friday, Regina on Saturday and Vancouver on Tuesday before hitting the road again. Tri-City is 8-10-1-0 on home ice.
“We have to have a good homestand,” Wotherspoon said. “We have to be better at home, simple as that.”
“We need to take advantage of these home games,” Williamson said. “We are still in a position, if we put a string of wins together, to get right back in the race. We can’t wait until the last few games of the season. We need to put some wins up right now.”
With Carlo returning, the Americans will have some much-needed experience on the back end.
“I feel like I bring a lot to this team,” Carlo said. “My defensive abilities keep the pucks out of the net. After the World Juniors, I feel I might bring a little extra confidence around the group. I have been doing a little bit better in my leadership role this year. Hopefully we can get things back on track.”
Fellow defenseman Brendan O’Reilly is off the injured list after a lengthy stay with a lower-body injury (he has missed 27 games), but other health woes are piling up.
Defenseman Juuso Välimäki was injured on the road trip, as was rookie forward Kyle Olson. Michael Rasmussen has been ill for a week and likely won’t play this weekend.
“I think (O’Reilly’s) ready,” Williamson said. “He has to get through this week of practice. We’ve basically been faced with having four defensemen out of the lineup that we were relying on. To get someone back means a lot. If we can get more stability back there, hopefully we can win some more games.
“Rasmussen has played well. He has played basically the last two months on our No. 1 line at the center position. We like what he brings to the game. He’s obviously a big part of our future. Just getting him back in the line will help a lot.”