When players arrive at the U.S. National Team Development Program, they begin a two-year journey that culminates with the IIHF World Under-18 tournament.
Jake Sanderson and Tyler Kleven, UND freshman defensemen, began that journey in the summer of 2018.
They played two years with the NTDP in Plymouth, Mich., and were a month away from playing in the world tournament -- on home soil, no less -- only to have it wiped out due to the coronavirus pandemic.
They never had a shot at playing in the U18s.
On Tuesday night, they did one better, though.
Sanderson and Kleven earned gold medals at the under-20 World Junior Championship in Edmonton by virtue of USA's 2-0 win over host Canada in Rogers Place, which was empty because of the ongoing pandemic.
"Before practice, we brought everyone to center ice, before we even started our drills today," UND coach Brad Berry said. "Obviously, our team is made up of Canadians and Americans, myself included, being an alum who won a gold medal (for Canada). You're always cheering for Canada. But at the end of the day, family comes first. We have Kleven and Sanderson on the U.S. team. (Winning gold) is something very special that a lot of players don't have an opportunity to do."
Sanderson and Kleven, Walsh Hall roommates, are UND's 13th and 14th players to win World Junior gold, joining Jacob Bernard-Docker (2020, Canada), Rocco Grimaldi (2013, USA), Danny Kristo (2010, USA), Jonathan Toews (2006, 2007, Canada), Zach Parise (2004, USA), Brady Murray (2004, USA), Drew Stafford (2004, USA), Greg Johnson (1991, Canada), Jason Herter (1990, Canada), Berry (1985, Canada), Troy Murray (1982, Canada) and James Patrick (1982, Canada).
It marks just the third time that UND has had multiple players on the gold-medal winning team.
It also marks just the third time that UND has had players on the gold-medal winning team in back-to-back years. Bernard-Docker won it last year. Toews won it back-to-back himself in 2006 and 2007, while Herter and Johnson won back-to-back in 1990 and 1991 with Canada.
Sanderson anchored USA's defensive core, playing more minutes than any blue liner outside of captain Cam York during the tournament. Sanderson played a total of 126:28, including 21:41 in the gold-medal game. He had two assists in the tournament and was plus-7.
Kleven did not play in the final. He suited up in two of USA's seven games, playing a total of 22:46 and registering one assist and a plus-3 rating.
Sanderson and Kleven are now expected to return to Grand Forks and resume the college hockey season with UND, which sits at 7-2-1. They played three games with the Fighting Hawks before departing for the World Juniors on Dec. 13. UND went 3-0 in those games.
USA topples Canada again
The Americans have had Canada's number in the gold-medal game.
The countries have played for gold five times. The U.S. has won four in a row.
It's a run that started in 2004 with USA's first-ever gold medal in the event. The Americans beat Canada 4-3 in Helsinki, Finland, on a fluky goal late in the third. Canadian goalie Marc-Andre Fleury accidentally threw a puck off of his own defenseman and into the net.
In 2010, the U.S. ended Canada's run of five-straight golds when John Carlson scored an overtime goal to win 6-5.
In 2017, the Americans beat the Canadians in a shootout.
And on Tuesday, the U.S. used a first-period goal from former Wisconsin forward Alex Turcotte and a second-period goal from former Boston University forward Trevor Zegras, while goaltender Spencer Knight, currently a sophomore at Boston College, stopped all 34 shots.
“I’m very proud of this group of guys, we really came together as a team over the course of this tournament,” USA head coach Nate Leaman said. “We played a great Canadian team today and we’re very fortunate to have beaten them. I’m proud of how this team played together. This will be a memory they have forever.”
In addition to Sanderson and Kleven, three others with UND connections won gold.
Equipment manager Nate LaPoint, who is now at Wisconsin, went to UND and worked with the UND hockey program during his college years. Nate's brother, Derrick, played defense for UND. Doctor Phil Johnson of Fargo is a UND graduate. And video coach Theresa Feaster's brother, Bobby, worked in operations at UND.
UND's World Junior gold medalists
2021 -- Jake Sanderson and Tyler Kleven (USA)
2020 -- Jacob Bernard-Docker (Canada)
2013 -- Rocco Grimaldi (USA)
2010 -- Danny Kristo (USA)
2007 -- Jonathan Toews (Canada)
2006 -- Jonathan Toews (Canada)
2004 -- Zach Parise, Brady Murray and Drew Stafford (USA)
1991 -- Greg Johnson (Canada)
1990 -- Jason Herter (Canada)
1985 -- Brad Berry (Canada)
1982 -- Troy Murray and James Patrick (Canada)