Is it Helsinki or Swim?
Players from around the world are gathered in Finland this holiday season ready to faceoff for national pride and perhaps a little self-promotion as well. The 31st edition of the World Junior Championship tournament is underway in Finland. NHL hopefuls, some yet to be drafted but mostly those who already have been selected, aim to put on a show for the hockey world in front of family, fans and of course, a plethora of NHL scouts.
But how important can a single tournament be? Of what real significance are these games?
Considering that the duration of the event spans just eleven days and comes in the middle of a season, is this really the do-or-die scenario that many in and around the hockey world seem to feel it is? Is it fair to the teenagers playing in the games, some as young as 16? How do the athletes actually benefit from this competition?
The best place to get an answer is from those who have been through the experience before and ask them what the tournament has meant to their careers in the long run.
“It’s still one of the highlights of my life,” raved Oiler forward Brad Isbister, a member of the victorious Canadian squad of 1997. “To be able to represent your country, it was the first time for me, and to win the gold medal with lifelong friends I made during tournament was an unbelievable experience.”
Isbister finished tied for the lead in team scoring that year which saw a trio of present day Oilers battling for the gold medal. Both Mike York and Marty Reasoner were representing the United States, a nation whose best previous finish was in winning the bronze in 1986 and 1992.
“That’s right, we played them in the final,” Isbister grinned while puffing out his chest and looking across the dressing room in York’s direction. “We won 2-0.”
“It was an unbelievable experience,” echoed Raffi Torres about his own appearance in 2001. “Going up against the best players in the world at that age, being so far away from home and putting on the red and white jersey is an unbelievable feeling.”
The 2001 tournament was hosted by Russia and was the sole occasion Torres had at the WJCs but he made the most of it. It was an overtime goal by Torres that salvaged a third place finish for Canada that year. A person could argue, however, that there is more than hardware to be won in such a competition.
“Obviously we came up short and took the bronze there,” continued Torres. “But the way a bunch of guys can come together over just a few weeks, it was really something special.”
In today’s NHL with the frequency of player movement throughout the league, eventually many players find themselves reunited with former World Junior comrades.
“I still keep in contact with a lot of those guys,” agreed York. “I played with Marty [Reasoner] on that team and now we’re playing together in the NHL so it’s amazing how the bonds you made sort of expand over time.”
Now playing for divisional rivals in the NHL, Ed Jovanovski and Ryan Smyth were once teammates on the 1995 team that went undefeated on its way to a gold medal in Red Deer.
“All the guys that played on that team are now playing in the NHL so you always see them through the rinks here and there,” said Jovanovski. “It was kind of like boot camp. There are a lot of meetings and a lot of team building stuff which is long at times but beneficial in the long run. You take some things like that out of it.”
Clearly this is an event that young players target as they advance through the amateur ranks on their way to achieving their NHL dreams. York, the only Oiler to have played in the global competition three times, feels the experience that he gained helped him propel his career forward.
“It’s definitely a stepping-stone,” said York. “To be able to represent your country is a big thrill and it’s against some of the top players in the world that you get to compete so it’s definitely exciting on that level too.”
“It’s the best junior tournament in the world and one of the most publicized tournaments in hockey period,” Oiler defenseman Eric Brewer announced. “It’s put on the world stage and the intensity becomes so big because there’s a lot of personal pride and a lot of international pride on the line. Even though you might not feel it directly, indirectly it’s everywhere.”
Brewer was a member of arguably Canada’s most disappointing squad ever, the 1998 team that only managed an eighth place finish. However, even though the results of the competition were not great, Brewer recognizes how the tournament is extremely meaningful for the teenage participants.
“You’re playing major junior or college and when you’re selected to play for the national team you know that you’re working in the right direction and you’re ready to take your game to the next level.”
The fact that only players younger than 20 years old are able to partake in the contest means that, for the most part, the teams should be comprised of athletes near the same stage of their budding careers. This is considered a terrific measuring stick by most in the hockey world including the players themselves.
“I got to see where I am amongst the other players and I played pretty well so it was very nice,” agreed highly touted Oiler prospect Jesse Niinimaki after his appearance in last year’s tournament.
“I think I gained a lot of confidence playing in my own zone,” confided Ryan Smyth. “Obviously it’s the elite players at that age. I had the knock against me that I was great offensively but in my own zone I was struggling so it was a matter of gaining some respect and some confidence in my own end and I did that in that tournament.”
Not only do players get to evaluate themselves against their international counterparts but they also experience the sometimes-unfamiliar tactics employed by other countries. For many players, this competition is the first real exposure to foreign hockey.
“It was a chance to play against guys who weren’t really familiar with the type of game that we play here in Canada,” described Torres. “It was amazing to watch how much skill there was out there, what guys did with the puck and how teams prepared for games and stuff made it a really unique experience.”
For many of the players in the tournament, it is almost considered a final exam before the upcoming NHL Entry Draft that summer. It’s a chance for the players to strut their stuff in front of the scouts from every one of those teams and all of them are searching for the next Great One.
“Absolutely. If you’re undrafted you want to go in and show that you can play against the best competition in the world,” reasoned Jovanovski. “Even if you are drafted already, hopefully you show your team that they made a good pick.”
But if a player has already been selected in a previous NHL draft, is the intensity and importance of the tournament then lessened?
“I know that having a pretty good tournament and winning the gold medal opened a lot of eyes from the team that drafted me and also around the league,” countered Isbister. “Hockey’s all about confidence and an experience like that you get that much more confidence playing against the world’s elite players in that age group so it’s definitely a good stepping stone.”
When the Olympic teams around the world were assembling their rosters prior to Nagano in 1998 and Salt Lake City in 2002, it would only make sense to check to see which players had prior international experience. A player can gain foreign hockey familiarity through World Championships but most years, the game’s best players are not involved in that tournament because the Stanley Cup playoffs are still underway in North America.
That’s why attention turns to the World Junior Championships as well.
“International experience is tough to replace,” confirmed Smyth who was part of Canada’s triumphant squad in Salt Lake. “The officiating, the bigger ice surface, the different systems that the European teams play, those are things you learn over time from playing.”
“I think it prepared me for the Olympics and the whole international flavor,” fellow 2002 gold medal winner Jovanovski summed up.
Although Canada has hosted the tournament the most since it began in 1974, the World Junior Championships are not always held in what would be considered a hockey power nation. In 1992 it was Germany who welcomed the world for the games and back in 1981 it was held in the same country then known as West Germany.
“I played in 1997 and it was in Geneva Switzerland,” said Isbister. “They love their Swiss team but it’s not really known as a hockey country. The venue we played at was a bit different, I think it was a figure skating rink because it was like at the Heritage Classic with ice all around the outside of the boards.”
A large part of the excitement and personal growth during the two weeks often comes from travelling to a foreign land and seeing how the game is viewed through the eyes of another country.
“It’s a great experience just to go through it all by going over there and seeing the whole new lifestyle but also focusing on hockey,” recounted the 2002 Captain of Team Canada Jarret Stoll. With a chuckle when asked about his two-week stay in Moscow, Stoll replied, “It was cold and dark, just like you see in the movies.”
Trevor Linden who, at the time, was one of the youngest players to have ever played in the tournament did so at a time in history when international tensions were often very evident. It was the year previous to Linden’s when both Team Canada and Team USSR were disqualified from the event because of a now legendary bench-clearing fight that got ridiculously out of hand.
“I played in 1988, in Moscow right after the brawl,” announced Linden with a sideways smile. “We won and I always tell [1987 participant Mike Keane] that we restored Canada to its hockey supremacy after they disgraced us.”
“It was a very special moment and something that I’ll never forget,” said Trevor Linden as he recalled the time he spent behind the Iron Curtain. “It was a great experience and opportunity to be over there because it was still very communist at that time, it was very cool.”
This year will be the sixth time that Finland has hosted the event, second only to Canada’s lead of seven. It is rightfully so, as those are probably the only two nations in the world that can accurately claim hockey as their country’s most popular sport.
“Christmas in Canada is all about World Juniors and being a part of that is huge,” stated B.C. born Eric Brewer.
“It’s a big focus at Christmas time and a lot of people watch it,” agreed Stoll, a present day Oiler teammate with Raffi Torres who was a co-participant in 2001 for Canada as well. “I watched it growing up all the time and to play in it with the great players that I did was a dream come true.”
However, no country can boast putting on a better show than Canada does as recently eye witnessed by two key Oiler prospects.
“I’ll remember that tournament all my life I think,” smiled top Oiler hopeful Jesse Niinimaki as he remembered his experience last year in Halifax. “The Canadian fans were so great, there was 8000 people there so there was noise all the time.”
“It was amazing and again it just proved how good Canada was as a host country,” proclaimed potential future Oiler Matt Greene who played for the fourth place American squad. “That tournament was top notch and everything was unbelievable. Even though we lost, it was probably the greatest experience with hockey in my life so far.”
The first year that Mike York suited up for Team USA the games were actually held in Boston Massachusetts, the Oiler center’s home state.
“The first year I didn’t play that much because I was a younger guy just learning the ropes,” York said. “It was fun to be a part of though, especially because it was in the United States and that doesn’t happen too often.”
It will happen for the fourth time next year when the United States will host the tournament from Grand Forks, North Dakota, home of the nation’s top ranked NCAA team.
“That’s obviously a big hockey state so it’ll be successful and they’ll get a good turn out.” York commented upon hearing the news. “Just being able to get the exposure for that state around the US is a good thing.”
With the amount of scouting activity going on during the two weeks, should we assume that this tournament is absolutely vital for the participants to state their cases before the NHL entry draft?
“At the time it’s very important,” explained Linden emphatically. “Mike Modano was over there and he and I were kind of in the running for the top pick so it was a big deal for me, a huge deal.”
It might feel like it’s critical but again, this is only a two week snap shot during one entire season schedule. What if a player has a lackluster tournament because he has the flu? What if a player like Canadian defenseman Ian White is forced to miss the tourney due to injury? With so many factors possibly affecting a player’s performance in such a short time span, how critical is the 11-day contest to NHL scouts?
“Personally for me, I don’t put that much emphasis on it,” confessed Edmonton’s VP of Player Operations Kevin Prendergast. “Depending on where a player is from, the ice is either bigger or smaller, the game is different and I think in a lot of cases the kids are not playing to what their strengths are. A lot of them are playing on the third or fourth line and not playing a lot in each period.”
Because the rosters basically consist of all-stars from each country, quite often a player accustomed to the role of a first liner on his regular league team is instead used as a checker during tournament. It’s not unlike the way that Ryan Smyth was converted to a third or fourth line job for the Olympics when he is clearly counted on for point production during the regular NHL season.
“The competition level obviously is important to see how they respond to it and in a lot of cases you’re looking to see how tough they are mentally,” continued Prendergast. “But do we put 50 percent of our draft eligible stuff on these things? No. We basically combine everything for the whole year and go with it from there on each player.”
To assume that players who compete and excel in the World Junior Championships all continue on to NHL success is flat out wrong. Likewise it is incorrect to think that few of today’s superstars did not partake in the competition at all when they were eligible.
Previous athletes who were named to the tournament All-Star team include household names like Christian Dube in 1997, Brent Tully in 1993, Dave Chyzowski in 1990 and Mike Moffat in 1982. Who?
In 1994, a dangerous trio of players named Martin Gendron, Yanick Dube and Rick Girard, led Team Canada in scoring and have since seemingly dropped off the planet.
Conversely, you would have a hard time finding the names of Todd Bertuzzi, Adam Oates, Ron Francis or even Mark Messier on the list of past Canadian representatives. But then again, what have those players ever accomplished in the NHL?
So while we know that the tournament is an honor to play in and that it’s a great tool for players and scouts alike to compare draft eligible prospects, really, how important is it to a player’s career over its entire duration?
“I don’t know if it had any defining direction on my career or not but I was lucky to be on that team,” concluded Linden. “I think just the experience for the kids; it’s a special time of year and a lot of times kids are away from home at Christmas for the first time.”
Basically, while the tournament is exciting and an honor to be a part of, it amounts to little more than a feather in a player’s, er, helmet.
More importantly, and often overlooked perhaps, is that this is the last time that these players are really ever considered kids. It’s the final major event many of them will play in before the business side of the sport takes hold of their lives. It is also the last tournament that every eligible player in the world would give anything to partake in.
How many times have we seen NHL players, who say they play for the love of the game, then turn their backs on their country each spring when it comes time for the World Championships? Even Patrick Roy, arguably the greatest goaltender of all time, took a pass on the Olympics when his country called him.
The importance of the World Juniors should not be how it dissects the potential superstars of the game or how it is the stepping-stone to future greatness. Rather, the event should be celebrated for what it is: the final culmination of a lifelong dedication by these young men, their parents, and their coaches into a fantastic realization of their dreams as amateurs.
These boys have reached a milestone in their hockey careers. They now have a wonderful opportunity to compete while representing their country on a world stage –- to celebrate the sacrifices they and their families made to the sport of hockey. This alone is reason enough to be proud of these players. They deserve our admiration, our respect and our attention for what they have already accomplished, regardless of what might come after.