Kirill Marchenko earned a bronze medal at last year's World Junior Championship in Vancouver and he'll add another medal to his collection today.
He's just hoping it's the right color as he and Russia face Canada in the gold medal game at the 2020 IIHF World Junior Championship in Czech Republic.
After finishing third in Group B with losses to the host team and USA, Russia defeated Switzerland 3-1 in the quarterfinals and edged out Sweden 5-4 in overtime of the semifinals for the opportunity to play for gold.
"There are not enough words to describe this feeling," Marchenko said through a translator. "You really have no idea what it means to wear this jersey until you step on the ice and give everything to represent your country. It's incredible. There is nothing like it.
"This is why you play hockey, to have moments and opportunities like this. This is what you dream about. This is the most important game in my career so far and I'm really excited to play for a gold medal."
Marchenko, who was selected in the second round of the 2018 NHL Draft by the Blue Jackets, said he grew up watching these games on TV and remembers wondering if he'd ever have the chance to to play for this team.
"I have always tried to be present and not think about the future too much," he said. "I never asked myself if I was good enough to play on this team. That is not my decision. It was a goal of mine and so I worked hard to put myself in the position to earn the opportunity.
"To be able to be on this team twice -- once last year and then this year -- is really special and it's a great honor to represent my country," he concluded.
The 19-year-old also represented Russia at the U-18 world championship in 2018, earning three goals and three assists for six points in five games. In last year's WJC, he notched just one goal, but in this year's event, he's got two goals and four assists for six points in six games, is averaging 17 minutes a game and leads the team in shots with 27.
"I like to play with the puck a lot. I like to pass it and make good setups for my partners and I like to shoot the puck myself if nothing is open, but I have to improve my goal scoring," Marchenko said. "I've had a lot of chances and they haven't gone in, but it's tough to say something about your own play when the team plays so well."
During the regular season, he has earned a regular role with SKA St. Petersburg of the KHL. Jarkko Ruutu, Blue Jackets European development coach, likes what he's seen from Marchenko both with SKA and Team Russia.
"I think there's a lot to like about him. He's a big guy, a tall guy. He's skilled and he's a good skater. That's what really pops out," he said of the 6-foot-2, 180-pound left winger. "He can score and is putting up some good numbers and he's been playing with men all year. Doesn't matter if it's KHL or VHL, he's taken a spot in the lineup and there's a lot of upside on him too. He's still physically raw, so that will take some time, but he's a player that can be a difference maker for us down the road."
While his skill, skating and ability to play through traffic and generate offense are his strengths, there's also a lot of opportunity to grow in other areas of his game as he continues to mature physically.
"He has to get stronger, gain some more strength and be more consistent," Ruutu stated. "His overall game is good at times, but I think he can be more reliable from shift to shift. Just the things that take time for young guys to learn. I'm not worried about that. The defensive things he needs to work on will come if he has the will and he's a player that wants to get better, so I'm not worried.
Having the chance to play among his peers at a high level at the World Juniors has been big for Marchenko's confidence and development. He plays a lot of minutes with his VHL team and is a point per game player there. When he's with the KHL team, he gets less minutes, but has been able to make the most of them by scoring some big goals. Here with Team Russia, he's playing big minutes with a regular shift on a top line and even seeing time on the power play.
"The level of hockey here is unbelievably high. You just try to be able to play at this level and push yourself to do more and be better because the tournament demands it if you want to be successful," Marchenko said. "With each game of the tournament it gets tougher. We just have to be prepared for the next game and make sure we do our best. That's the only way we are going to win."
In the preliminary round, Russia beat Canada 6-0. While they know the gold medal rematch is unlikely to have another lopsided score, Marchenko and his teammates like where their game is at this point in the tournament and are confident they can pull out another big win against the Canadians.
"We're playing like a team right now. Our line is playing well too. We just have to build on this and keep getting better," he said about playing with fellow CBJ draft pick Dmitri Voronkov. "Discipline is key. Everything will be tougher in this game and we just have to be focused and play to our best if we want to win gold."