It would be safe to say that every young player who dons their country’s colours at the World Junior Championships holds those memories close to their hearts forever.
For Jets defenceman Mark Stuart
, that memory was in Finland during the 2004 World Junior Championships, when he captained USA’s National Junior team to their first-ever gold medal.
“It was a lot of fun because I had played with most of the guys on that team in high school and a lot of guys had played together growing up, so we were a pretty close team from the start,” said Stuart. “Playing for your country is something special. It’s something I’ve always enjoyed and I’ve been lucky enough to have the opportunity to do it a few times.”
Along with close friends and teammates, Stuart was lucky enough to have his family alongside to take in the experience.
“My Dad was actually the doctor for our team so he was there the whole time so I got to spend the holidays with him. We started out in Hämeenlinna and moved to Helsinki for the championship round which is a great city and a lot of fun. The crowds are really good and the rinks are really nice.”
Playing for your country is something special. It's something I've always enjoyed and I've been lucky enough to have the opportunity to do it a few times. - Mark Stuart
Team USA won all four of their preliminary matchups against Austria, Slovakia, Sweden and Russia. Going undefeated in the preliminary round meant an automatic birth into the semi-finals. They faced Finland in the semi-final game and prevailed to a 2-1 victory, earning a spot in the Gold Medal game against Canada.
“That game was very nerve-racking,” remembered Stuart. “It was a weird feeling because we were down 3-1 going into the third period against Canada but we didn’t really panic. We knew we were a good team and we were pretty confident. A few things went our way but that’s what happens when you have that confidence and that talent.”
The Americans clawed their way back in to the game and tied the score early in the third. The game-winner came with just under five minutes left when a lucky bounce off of Canadian defenceman Braydon Coburn ended up in the back of the net. USA took a 4-3 lead to win their first-ever gold medal.
“The experience of winning a gold medal with USA, having never have won it before, was amazing. I don’t think I’d be where I am today if it wasn’t for that experience. It definitely helped me in my career and my development.”
Jets captain Andrew Ladd
can relate to the unforgettable memory of winning a gold medal for his country, when Canada’s National Junior team won in 2005 in Grand Forks, North Dakota.
The MTS Centre, former home of the Manitoba Moose and current home to the Winnipeg Jets, first opened it’s doors on November 16, 2004, just in time to host Canada’s National Junior team training camp. Little did Ladd know, seven years later, he would return to the very building as a member of the Winnipeg Jets.
“It was an amazing part of the whole experience, to be able to see the crowd and play a game there,” said Ladd. “It was a lot of fun, something that stands out for sure.”
Team Canada played an exhibition game at the MTS Centre on December 20th, 2004 against Finland. They took to the ice wearing Team Canada replica ‘antique gold’ jerseys, a tribute to the storied 1920 Winnipeg Falcons, Canada’s first gold-medal winning team in Olympic ice hockey.
“That was something that stood out as well. They were this mustard-yellow colour and they were pretty fun to wear. I remember Canadian flags everywhere and the building being absolutely crazy.”
The 2005 Canadian junior team was stacked with unbelievable talent, passion and dedication boasting names such as Sidney Crosby, Jeff Carter, Ryan Getzlaf, Dion Phaneuf, and Shea Weber. Not to mention coached by Brent Sutter (now coach of the Calgary Flames).
“I think we knew at the time that it was a pretty special group of guys we had,” said Ladd. “We were confident that if we came out and played the way we needed to that our skill and determination would take over.
“It was such a close group because a lot of guys had played together before, either the year before at the World Juniors, in the WHL, or across the Canadian Hockey League. We were a pretty close-knit team from the start which made it easy for guys to jump in and feel comfortable.”
Team Canada dominated all four of their preliminary games against Slovakia, Sweden, Germany and Finland earning a birth in the semi-finals to play the Czech Republic. After defeating the Czech Republic 3-1, they moved on to face Team Russia in the gold medal game, who boasted stars such as Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin.
“We were a pretty focused group,” Ladd said. “We knew that if we didn’t come away with a gold it would be pretty disappointing.
“It’s different because of the one-game elimination, whereas when you’re in a seven game series you can get away with having a bad game. In a single-game elimination you have to have your best every night so you don’t give up that one bad game where you’re going to get knocked out.”
Canada never did have a bad game that tournament. They gave up three goals in their first game against Slovakia but didn’t allow more than a single goal in each of the next five games. They walked away with a convincing 6-1 victory over the Russians to bring the gold medal back to Canada.
Most young Canadian hockey players can only dream about wearing the maple leaf for Team Canada and only a special few will have that dream become a reality.
“It was amazing,” were Ladd’s only words to explain wearing Canada’s colours. “It’s something you did growing up as a kid, get up on Boxing Day and the first thing you want to do is watch the World Juniors. To be able to have that experience, put on that jersey and see how far you’d come was a dream come true and an amazing experience.”
One thing about winning is that there are so many great memories along the way - Andrew Ladd
When asked to share his most memorable moment from his World Junior experience, there were just too many to list.
“One thing about winning is that there are so many great memories along the way,” he said. “It takes so many different things to make it happen so I think you enjoy all of those little things. When you look back, those are the things you remember.
“Every year I see highlights from that year and it brings back a lot of good memories. To this day, it’s still something I do on Boxing Day, wake up and watch the World Juniors.”