For six years, I spent the holiday season with the Canadian Junior squad.
During that time, I watched almost all of today's NHL stars establish themselves as the players they are now through the intense grind that is the World Junior Hockey Championship.
Ovechkin, Crosby, Malkin, Getzlaf, Kane, Toews, Richards, Stamkos, Phaneuf, Backstrom, Price and countless others have passed through. As the puck gets set to drop on Saturday, I look back at some of my favorite moments along the way. They're not all pivotal events during a game, but these are the memories that immediately come to mind when I think about my World Junior experience. Enjoy the tournament everyone. It's a fun journey...
Canada/USA Semi-final, Leksand, Sweden - 2007: As good a game as I've ever seen. Toews and Price in the shootout were bananas. I remember standing in the corner to the left of Price during the OT and shootout and next to me was Canada's goaltending consultant. ‘Hirschy' had played for Canada in goal for Canada during the gold medal game during the 1994 Winter Olympics. He looked at me and said, “watching this right now is way more stressful!”
John Tavares' goal, Dec. 23, 2008, Canada/Slovakia, Copps Coliseum in Hamilton, Ontario: In the last exhibition game before the Ottawa tournament, Tavares scored a goal that had the crowd collectively say, 'Wow!' It was one of those moments by a talent like that where you said to yourself, 'Did he just do that?!' For a kid who went in as the face of the tournament and had every scout watching, you'd be hard pressed to find a better performance living up to the hype.
Brent Sutter's 1-on-1 battles - Gimli, Manitoba, Dec. 2004: It was minus-50 with the wind chill and very few people were in the arena that day, but never in my life have I ever witnessed such intensity at a practice. Watching the likes of Getzlaf, Carter, Crosby, Coburn, Phaneuf, Weber, and Richards pound each other in the corner was a sight to behold. Jaws were dropped as they worked away. It was one superstar dream showdown after another. If there was ever a day to know that group was ready to seek and destroy the competition, it was that day.
Christmas with the McGuires - Stockholm, Sweden, Christmas 2006: Sometimes, when you're half a world away from home, a familiar face becomes like family. At the World Juniors, the entire TSN broadcast crew becomes ours. Our hockey analyst, Pierre McGuire used to bring his father Rex along for the tournament and he would share in past tales and laughs over the course of the two week journey. Rex left us a couple of years ago, but I won't forget the day that Pierre and Rex made me an honorary McGuire for a day as we strolled the streets and soaked in Stockholm on Christmas Day.
Jeff Carter, Andrew Ladd and Ryan Getzlaf - 2005 in Grand Forks, North Dakota: These guys were simply ridiculous to watch because of how dominating they were. Just how good were they? Keep in mind, that Sidney Crosby, Patrice Bergeron and Corey Perry were Canada's second line. Nuff said!
Legein's pie to the face, Pardubice, Czech Republic 2008: Need I really say more?
Ovechkin in 2005 - Grand Forks, North Dakota: This wasn't a moment on the ice but I thought it reflected Ovechkin's confidence and playful swagger all in one. While I still working at The Score, Ovechkin and the Russian team were cutting through a media work room following a practice. On a television at the time, TSN was taping a panel hit discussing how Canada should attack the Russian dynamite and he saw the video playing of himself as he walked by. I had interviewed Ovechkin a few times prior so he was familiar with me - and he stopped to watch. At one point, he looked at me and asked 'What did they say?' I explained that they were discussing ways to stop him in the gold medal game. He paused for a moment, then grinned at me and said, 'Let them try!'
It didn't end well for Ovechkin that day, but it was a certainly a foreshadowing of things to come.
And let the next chapter unfold this holiday season...