BRATISLAVA, SLOVAKIA - At the end of last year, Damon Severson had just competed the first year of a six-year contract and, as he said with a shrug, "It was just ok."
That's when he realized that he had a lot more to give and needed to double down on his commitment to play at his very best in order to take another step forward in his career because just ok wasn't good enough.
"It's real easy to doubt yourself at this level and it's hard to play well when you're not confident," he said. "So, when I looked back on that year and felt that I could've been better, I said to myself, 'These guys committed to me with a long term for a reason and I believe in myself, I know what I can do and I know what I can bring to the team to help us win.' Then it just became a matter of putting in the work to make sure I was playing up to my potential.
"I wanted to prepare myself to be locked in all season and be a guy that's really counted on and create that internal competition within myself and show my teammates that I'm there every night and they know what they can get out of me," he continued.
He hoped it would end in a playoff run with the Devils. Instead, it ended with an invitation from Hockey Canada to represent his country at the 2019 IIHF World Championship in Slovakia.
"Towards the end of the season, I heard Nico [Hischier] and Jesper [Bratt] talking about their hopes for getting an invite from their home countries and it got me thinking," Severson explained. "I felt like I had had a pretty good season and I was playing well and I was healthy and had term on my contract. Those are kind of all the things that go into getting an invite and I thought maybe there was possibility that I might get the call. So, I didn't make any post-season plans and left the door open.
"Let's just say I was hopeful," he concluded with a grin.
A few days after the season ended, Severson was packing up his apartment to head back to Saskatchewan for the summer when he got a text message from Jason Botterill, general manager of Team Canada. A quick phone call later and the 24-year-old defenseman was officially on his way to Slovakia.
The last time Severson wore the red and white maple leaf was at the U-18 world championship in 2012. So, he was excited to have the opportunity to represent his country again, but also to play at a high level in meaningful, pressure-packed games.
"I felt really good about my game this year," said the 6-foot-2, 205 pound defenseman who had a career high in goals (11) and points (39) this season. "And, I just wanted to keep it going. There are some really talented players on this team and it's exciting to have the chance to play with them and hopefully it will help me be even better. That might be the best part. Everyone seems to do things a little different and maybe I can pick up a few new tricks that I can bring back to New Jersey with me."
One thing he'd like to bring back to New Jersey is the electric atmosphere.
"Our fans in New Jersey are really great, so don't get me wrong when I say this, but the fans here are insane," he explained. "Just the chants they do and all the singing throughout the entire game. We don't have anything like that in North America. It's all game long, no matter what the score is or who has possession of the puck, there's always noise in the building. When one chant dies, another one starts right up. It's really a lot of fun to play in an atmosphere like that, even when they're not cheering for us."
Severson finished the tournament with one goal - the buzzer beating game tying goal against Switzerland in the quarterfinal that helped Canada advance to the semifinals - five assists and a silver medal after a 3-1 loss to Finland in the championship game.
"I think we played well enough to deserve a medal. It's not the medal we came for, but Finland played some really good hockey and were the only team to beat us. Unfortunately, they did it twice," he said after the game. "But there were a lot of positives that I can take away from the experience personally, especially feeling more comfortable playing a big role in big situations."
Like in New Jersey, Severson played monster minutes on the penalty kill and a smattering on the power play and was given more time in key situations with Team Canada and felt that it will only help him be more versatile and give him some experience should those same opportunities open up in New Jersey. So while he heads back home to train for the summer, he said there was a lot to be excited about.
"We have a really good team in New Jersey and we're excited about what we can do together. We just need to keep everyone healthy," he said. "We all want to win and I know we're all going to be working hard this summer to put ourselves in positions to have really good seasons as individuals, but also as a team and how can you not be excited about having the first overall pick in the draft?"
"So, outside of the fact that we think this medal is the wrong color," he continued. "I'm thankful for the experience with Hockey Canada - this was amazing - and there's just a lot to be excited about looking ahead. Let's keep it rolling."