Several current members of the Calgary Flames have experienced both the ups and downs of competing at the IIHF world junior hockey championships. Captain Jarome Iginla helped Canada win gold at the 1996 world junior tournament in Boston.
"It's definitely one of the best experiences that I've had," said Iginla, who notched five goals and seven assists in six games. "It was very powerful. It was huge for growth. It is a lot of pressure on the young guys and you learn to deal with that."
Goalie Miikka Kiprusoff played five games over two years for Finland in 1995 when the tournament was hosted by Red Deer and again the next year in Boston, but he was unable to earn a medal.
Defenceman Cory Sarich experienced both the highs and lows of competing at the world juniors. Sarich was on the Canadian squad that beat the United States in the 1997 gold-medal game in Geneva, Switzerland.
"Of course, '97 was the highlight getting to win the gold medal," said Sarich, who was also a member of the Canadian contingent that finished in eighth spot the next year in Helsinki, Finland. "It was an unbelievable experience to represent your country."
Alex Tanguay also cracked Canada's lineup for the tournament in 1998, while fellow Flames forward Olli Jokinen was a key member of the Finnish squad that steamrolled its way to victory on home soil.
"It's kind of a sore spot for them," said Jokinen, who likes to remind his teammates about his gold-medal accomplishment.
"We played against Canada in our first game and we beat them. Nobody was expecting us to win. We kind of took off after that. We didn't lose a game. We ended up beating Russia in overtime (of the final)."
After scoring five goals in six games the previous year when Finland finished out of the medals, Jokinen had four goals and six assists in seven games during his home country's impressive showing in 1998.
"Any time you're able to win something at any level, those are the memories you're going to remember the rest of your life," said Jokinen, who believes that Finland has a chance to contend for a medal at this year's event in Calgary and Edmonton.
"I really think they have a good chance to win this year."
Defenceman Jay Bouwmeester cracked Canada's roster for three straight years from 2000 to 2002 and won two bronze medals and a silver.
"I was pretty lucky," Bouwmeester said. "My first year, I got to play when I was 16, so it was my first year of junior. I went to the camp and I didn't really expect to make the team. It worked out pretty well. It happened a lot quicker than I thought I would.
"It's something you watch growing up. It's your first chance to represent your country and it's a pretty big deal anytime. All in all, it's a good experience."
Bouwmeester travelled to Europe for the event all three times he played. He won bronze in Skelleftea, Sweden in 2000 and the next year in Moscow before capturing silver in Pardubice, Czech Republic in 2003.
"You get a different perspective too when you play over there because it's not a big deal," he said, adding that travelling to three new countries was a unique experience for him at a young age.
Forward Matt Stajan had a goal and an assist in six games when he played for Canada at the 2003 world junior tournament in Halifax.
For the second straight year, Canada lost to Russia in the final.
In 2005 and 2006, Flames bench boss Brent Sutter guided Canada to 12 straight victories and back-to-back gold medals.
"The preparation that goes into it is outstanding," Sutter said. "I learnt a lot through it. It certainly made me better as a coach."
With Sutter at the helm, Canada cruised to the 2005 title in Grand Forks, North Dakota.
"It was like a dream team," said Sutter, who also coached Canada to six straight wins in Vancouver.
"That second group, their whole drive was they wanted to be better than the year before. They wanted to show that they could win every game too and so there was that push and there was that drive that they didn't want to lose either."
Blake Comeau was a key forward for Canada in Vancouver as he notched three goals and four assists in six games.
"It is definitely a lot of pressure," Comeau said. "Anytime you put on the Canadian jersey, you're expected to win gold. Everyone wants to do well whether it's on Canadian soil or not. I remember coming out for one of the warm-ups in Vancouver and it was sold out and all the Canadian flags and the red and white. I remember it putting chills on my back when I was skating around."
Although defenceman Chris Butler got injured when he played for the U.S. squad in Vancouver, he still enjoyed getting the chance to play in such a high-profile event.
"As an American, I don't think the world juniors is quite as publicized as it is in Canada, so for me it was a big thrill to play here," said Butler, who would have loved to get the chance to suit up against Canada.
"Unfortunately I separated my shoulder against Switzerland the day before we played Canada, so I was kind of shut down for the tournament."
While goalie Leland Irving cracked his home country's roster for the 2007 tournament in Leksand, Sweden, he was relegated to the back-up role behind Carey Price, who backstopped Canada to a third straight gold medal.
"The world juniors was a very exciting time for me, even though I was on the bench for most of it," Irving said. "Just being able to throw on the Canadian sweater, you just feel a huge sense of pride playing for your country. It's just a great honour."
Forward Mikael Backlund had two strong performances at the world juniors representing Sweden. At the 2008 tournament in Pardubice, Backlund scored three goals and added four assists in six games. The next year in Ottawa, the Swedish sniper scored five times and set up two others in six games. Unfortunately for Backlund, he had to settle for a pair of second-place showings as Canada beat Sweden in both finals.
"Even though I've got two silvers, I'm really proud of it," Backlund said. "It's great memories anyway. It's so much fun when you go there. You're just so excited."
Even though Roman Horak finished well out of the medals both times he competed for the Czech Republic at the 2010 event in Buffalo and the 2011 tournament in Regina and Saskatoon, he enjoyed the experience immensely.
"Last year we finished seventh and the year before eighth," Horak said. "It wasn't that great but it's always nice to get together with all the guys and play for your country. You're pretty much playing against the best junior guys in the world and obviously it helps you a lot to get better."
Author: Laurence Heinen