When Jackson LaCombe, Ryan Johnson and Brock Faber returned to 3M Arena at Mariucci after a month away from their college team, there was no quiet slide back into the routine.
Their Gophers teammates made sure of that, surprising them at the rink Wednesday night to welcome them home.
"Getting to represent your country was awesome, but this is our team for the next four years, so it was really cool that we were able to come back, and they all took time out of their day to come to the rink at, like, 9 o'clock or something and give us a round of applause," Faber said. "… It was definitely special."
The three defensemen showed off their Team USA jerseys and shiny gold medals from the World Junior Championship in Edmonton, and their teammates celebrated that success with them and also shared their excitement in rejoining the 10-0 Gophers at Wisconsin this weekend.
With the Gophers undefeated and Team USA going 6-1 to win gold, hardly anyone on this Minnesota roster has experienced defeat this season, whether on the collegiate or international ice. And that has the team eager to keep playing, so much so that coach Bob Motzko had to kick LaCombe, Johnson and Faber off the ice for Thursday's practice, which he mandated as a mandatory off day for the trio.
"I told all three of our guys they didn't have to play this weekend," Motzko said. "… I actually encouraged it, if they needed to take time. And, of course, they told me no."
Johnson said with the players on lockdown within the bubble for the tournament in Edmonton, Alberta, there was actually plenty of downtime in their hotel rooms. And while Motzko might make them take some more rest days next week when the adrenaline wears off, playing for the Gophers again was a high priority.
"Just being excited to be back with the team, and just kind of wanting to go out on the ice to just show the boys that we care about this team, and we just want to help and contribute in any way we can," Johnson said. "Even if our bodies are a little sore, we'll be on the ice."
Plus, it's a chance to play against Cole Caufield, their recent U.S. compatriot. The Wisconsin forward said he last saw those teammates-turned-opponents at the airport Wednesday. Faber added there was definitely some banter about the upcoming series.
"I just told them I'd see them in a couple days," Caufield said. "I mean, obviously there's a totally different feeling when you're playing against your teammates, and I'm really excited to play against them and just see them again and just talk about it. Just enjoy the experience that we got to go through together."
Wisconsin coach Tony Granato said he knows from experience how playing against a friend or ex-teammate just amps up the competition, mostly to avoid any postgame chirping for whatever side is on the losing end of a one-on-one or the score line.
"They'll smile at each other when they see each other in warmups and remember the last month's journey that they had together to achieve the ultimate goal of winning the gold medal," Granato said. "… But, I think, once the competition starts, those guys are going to want to shut Cole down, and Cole is going to want to do everything he can to get back offensively and score and make the plays to help us win."
So whether the Gophers continue their winning streak or Wisconsin starts its second half with a victory over the nation's No. 1 team, one aspect won't change. Caufield, LaCombe, Johnson and Faber are bonded forever.
"It's exciting," Granato said, "because they just experienced something that will be with them the rest of their lives."