|Chicago's version of the "Killer Bs" are about to invade Vancouver. |
The Blackhawks have four players on Team Canada's roster for the pressure-packed World Junior Championship that starts today in Vancouver and, coincidentally, their last names all begin with the letter "B."
There's defenseman Cam Barker of the Medicine Hat Tigers of the major junior Western Hockey League, and forwards Daniel Bertram of Boston College, Michael Blunden of Erie of the Ontario Hockey League and David Bolland of London of the OHL. Barker is the lone returning player from Team Canada's 2005 squad that won the gold medal last year in North Dakota.
"We're kidding each other about training camp. We watch the NHL highlights together and talk a lot about the Blackhawks," says Barker. "It's sort of neat that we're all on the same team and we'll be up against some other guys who were drafted by Chicago. I am anxious to see them."
The Blackhawks also have two players on the American roster in Jack Skille and Nathan Davis, along with Jakub Sindel and Karel Hromas of the Czech Republic. Hromas was named captain when the Czechs arrived in Canada.
With 8 players in the tournament, Chicago is among the league leaders when it comes to representation in the tournament that features the top players 19 and under.
Canada is grouped in a pool with the United States, Finland, Switzerland and Norway. Russia, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Sweden and Latvia are in the other pool.
The annual 10-team World Junior Championship is a must-see event for Blackhawks GM Dale Tallon, who plans to scout the tournament for about a week.
"This is good for the organization and good for the scouts. They've done a lot of work and they've done a great job," says Tallon. "We have had a lot of picks and that is what we set ourselves up for, to rebuild and reorganize and build a foundation. I'm excited to see all of them and see how they perform."
What makes the World Juniors a must-see event is simple: It is hockey's ultimate coming-out party. The World Juniors provides scouts and fans the first glimpse of the NHL's future stars.
Tallon says players can take a lot and learn a lot from their experience in the WJC.
"We look at Brent Seabrook playing on our team and I think he became a different person and a player after the success they had. He felt good about himself and he felt better after the tournament," says Tallon. "Usually there is a bit of a lull after the tournament, they are so high and they bounce back but he became a better player and he became more confident as a result of it.
"At our training camp this year, Blunden was terrific as an 18-year-old and he was one of our best players. And when he left our camp he left with a lot of confidence and enthusiasm and that carried over to his regular season play."
There is always pressure on Canada to win and Canadians might be the only hockey fans in the world who devalue silver. And with the tournament being staged in three centers - Vancouver, Kelowna and Kamloops - there's more pressure on the 'Hawks Killer Bs to perform in their homeland.
"There is always pressure to perform," says Barker.
Tallon is confident that can handle the pressure.
"The kids are on that team are high-character kids as well. They do everything in their power to make that team and they will do everything in their power to be successful. They have a passion for what they do and a passion for the game and that is what excites me," he says.
"They are under more of a microscope and they have a tendency to over-try. Once they get going the will get over that and with Brent (Sutter, the Head Coach) there, he will calm them down and get them in the right direction."
Team Canada's alumni list includes Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, San Jose's Joe Thornton, Nashville's Paul Kariya, Joe Sakic of Colorado, Trevor Linden of Vancouver, Jarome Iginla of Calgary, Jose Theodore of Montreal, Eric Lindros of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Philadelphia's Eric Desjardins to mention a few NHL stars who wore Canada's colors at the World Juniors.
Four of the top rookies in the NHL this season - Sidney Crosby of Pittsburgh, Dion Phaneuf of Calgary, and Philadelphia's duo of Mike Richards and Jeff Carter helped Canada mine gold at the '05 WJC in North Dakota, where they tested their wares against Washington's Alexander Ovechkin, another NHL freshman who played for Russia.
The American alumnus includes Brian Leetch of the Bruins, Calgary's Tony Amonte and Pittsburgh's John LeClair, Keith Tkachuk and Doug Weight of the St. Louis Blues, Zach Parise of New Jersey and Mike Modano of Dallas.
Markus Naslund of the Canucks played on a line with Philadelphia's Peter Forsberg at the '93 tournament in Sweden. Montreal's Saku Koivu, Jaromir Jagr of the Rangers, Alexander Mogilny of the Devils, Mats Sundin of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Sergei Fedorov of Columbus, Marian Gaborik of Minnesota, along with Ilya Kovalchuk of Atlanta are NHL stars that were part of the Who's Who of international players who showcased their talent at the World Juniors.
The World Junior Championship is best-on-best hockey in a pressure-cooker. For the players who proudly wear their country's colors on the international stage, a trip to the World Juniors means so many new experiences. They're united with so many people they've never met before, or even had celebrated battles in league play, and they are usually a long ways from home in a foreign land at a time usually reserved for family.
They all have fond memories.
"It was really important for me because I was playing Connecticut high school hockey and I had not even played against college-aged competition and those were the guys that were mostly on my team," recalls Brian Leetch, who played in 1984, 1985 and 1986. "It was fantastic. It was strange being away from home for the holidays for three years, but it was first time really traveling with a bunch of guys my age."
The Americans are favored to win the tournament this time around, while Russia Canada and the Czech Republic will also be in the medal hunt.
"If we play hard and play to our potential, we should have a good tournament," says Barker. "We have a good team and since I played last year, I can tell the guys what's coming next, things like that."
The Americans' 22-man roster includes 18 NHL draft picks but Head Coach Walt Kyle is downplaying any pre-tournament hype about going in as the favorites. He says defending champion Canada is favored because they are on home ice and hockey is in the Canadian blood.
"Canada is playing in their own country, they are defending gold medalists. They've won medals forever in this tournament," Kyle says. "People talk about us being favorites, I would challenge anyone to go into Canada and take this away from them, that is going to be a very difficult task and in my opinion they are the favorites."
Kyle understands the pulse and pressure of the WJC. He won a bronze medal in 1992 when Canada finished sixth.
"From the last time I coached this team in '92, there's a huge difference in the talent pool," Kyle says. "When we medaled in '92, I don't think we really believed we could win the gold medal. The difference between these guys and the guys I had in '92 is that these guys legitimately believe that they can have success. And they believe that because they've done it (at the under-18 level)."