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FLAMES EXTRA - AGONY AND ECSTASY

Lazar's world junior experience, like that of an entire country, ran the gamut of emotions

by GEORGE JOHNSON @GJohnsonFlames / calgaryflames.com

Having both scraped the depths and touched the heavens, Curtis Lazar fully understands the polarizing dynamics of the task awaiting.

"The pressure in that tournament is insane. For teenage kids? Wow," says the Flames' all-industry centre-winger, a two-timer at the World Junior Hockey Championships,

"It goes either way, right? There's no middle ground. Win or lose. Good or bad. Heroes or goats.

"I've been on both sides of that fence."

The 2018 world juniors, the 42nd edition, runs from the customary Boxing Day start, a shade over a week away, through Jan. 5, at the 19,500-seat KeyBank Centre and 1,500-seat HarborCenter in Buffalo.

As well, a Group A preliminary-round game between Canada and the U.S. will be staged outdoors, a first for the WJC, on Dec. 29 at the home of the NFL's Buffalo Bills, the 71,000-seat New Era Field in Orchard Park.

The world juniors has, over the years - for Canadians at any rate, morphed into as much a Yuletide/New Year's staple as mistletoe, spiked eggnog, a family viewing of It's a Wonderful Life or that sparkly ball dropping in New York's Times Square - followed by a rousing rendition of Auld Lang Syne.

Lazar's two-tourney world junior experience ran the gamut from Z to A, a gutting fourth-place finish in Malmö, Sweden in 2014 to an edgy gold-medal-capturing performance on home turf at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto a year later.

"The year we finished fourth, in Sweden, you'd go on social media and you're just being torn apart,'' he recalls. "Absolutely shredded. A turnover or something along those lines and, man, people really let you have it.

"Sure, we know how passionate Canadians are about the game, and that (the world juniors) has become our Christmas tradition and all that. But you're still dealing with kids.

"It's a fantastic tournament, on everyone's bucket list growing up, including mine, but we're Canada, right. So the expectations are always high, off the charts.

"I mean, last year, they lose the gold-medal game (to the U.S.) in a shootout. Great game. Two great teams.

"Unfortunately, both teams can't win."

The 2014 event in Malmö started strongly enough, the Canadians topping their group by virtue of three victories and an overtime loss before doing away with Switzerland 4-1 in a quarter-final game.

Then in the semifinal against Finland, everything went wrong.

"You're just in this state of … shock,'' recalls Lazar of the heavy 5-1 defeat. "You really don't know how to react."

Stunned, their title dreams dashed and less than a day to regroup, the Canadians then dropped the bronze-medal game, as well, 2-1 to the Russians.

"After what happened in Sweden, I, and the other guys who were still eligible, could not wait to get back and make amends,'' says Lazar.

"That's the very first thought that pops into your head: 'I've gotta get back there …' After all, it's not only a city pulling for you, it's an entire country.

"I remember sitting down with (Ottawa Senators' GM) Bryan Murray and discussing what was best for my development at that time. It's two weeks out of a career, so I really wanted to go, have another chance.

"And fortunately, I did."

A couple of months later, with Toronto-Montreal as co-hosts, the Canadian lineup was once more overflowing with current and future NHLers - Connor McDavid, Max Domi, Anthony Duclair, Sam Reinhart, Jake Virtanen of the Calgary Hitmen, Lazar, etc., etc.

Again, the pre-event favourites topped their group, this time a spotless 4-0 (including a 4-1 revenge scoreline against Finland) with a whopping 21-4 goals for/against ratio.

"In 2015,'' recalls Lazar, who finished sixth in tournament scoring with five goals and nine points in seven games, "we had a very mature team, limited our social media and kept things internal, very much inside our dressing room.

"Don't get me wrong, we had fun with everything but we also didn't let all the outside things interfere with our focus. We were so efficient. I usually had to play the bad guy, trying to keep everyone grounded.

"We'd steamroll a team and I'd be the guy to get on all the fancies, the toe-drags, the saucer passes and all that.

"Sure it's fun hockey. But when you get down to the medal round, you have to play direct. Play the Canadian way, just hard-nosed, physical, in-your-face hockey."

The Canadians breezed through the quarter-finals and semis, throttling Demark 8-0 and Slovakia 5-1 to reach the gold-medal against the Russians at the ACC.

There followed one of the most dramatic comebacks in tournament history, Canada building a seemingly-insurmountable 5-1 cushion - scoring on its first shift, chasing the goaltender - before Russia stormed back from the very edge of the abyss, counting three times in an unbelievable three-minute, 16-second span late in the third period to make it close.

The ending, with Russia out on a powerplay in search of the equalizer, left the 19,000 souls inside the building, and millions sweating buckets in family rooms across the country, on the edge of their seats.

"I mean, yeah, it was tense there for a while,'' says Lazar. "But we got 'er done.

"You win all the other games but don't win the last one and the feeling is gonna be kinda like 'So what?'

"To bring home the gold for the first time in five years, and on home ice … well, there's nothing like that feeling. Nothing to compare"

Coming on three years later, the emotions remain strikingly current.

"So many memories,'' reflects Lazar. "Pick one that stands out? That's hard. Really hard.

"Being arm-in-arm with your brothers, the guys you'd gone into battle with, on the blueline, hearing O Canada being played. And feeling it's not just you, but an entire country that's so happy.

"Being a roommate and linemate of Connor McDavid. Being able to enjoy the spectacle.

"But one …?

"Just hoisting that trophy, I guess. You work so hard. Being able to do it in Toronto, that's pretty sweet, too. Especially after what we'd gone through the year before.

"To win gold for the first time in six years, and on home ice … well, there's nothing quite like that feeling. 

"Nothing to compare."

Once again, this Christmas season, the attention of a nation shifts from the pros to the soon-to-be-pros.

Lazar, when he gets the chance in a hectic post-Christmas NHL schedule, will surely be watching along with other Flames' world junior alumni from a variety of nations, such as the Hamilton brothers, Johnny Gaudreau, Micheal Frolik, Mikael Backlund, Jaromir Jagr and Matthew Tkachuk.

Once more, the kids modelling the Maple Leaf will be installed as one of the favourites to deliver on demand.

"It's a privilege, a true honour, to put on that sweater in that tournament,'' repeats someone who did so twice, both scraping the depths and touching the heavens in the process. "I'm sure you've heard that a million times. But it doesn't make it any the less true.

"And, like I said, I've seen both ends of the spectrum.

"You wouldn't change the experience for the world. We love the sport. Kids are laying it all on the line. They're out there representing us.

"Hockey's our game. And the World Juniors is part of any Canadian family's Christmas tradition.

"But no matter what happens, you've got to hold your heads high. 

"We should be proud, regardless."

 

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