The Ontario Reign will have a pair of representatives, Rasmus Kupari and Tobias Bjornfot, playing on Team Finland and Team Sweden respectively for the upcoming Under-20 World Junior Championship.
Both players are in their first seasons of North American professional hockey and while Reign Head Coach Mike Stothers is disappointed to lose two of his players for a few weeks, he is excited for both to take the opportunity.
"We're just happy that they're going and getting that experience," Stothers said. "We've got a good representation throughout the organization for a high-marquee tournament, so I think that's awesome for everybody. Both of them have come a long way since rookie camp."
"They're both still teenagers and it's not as easy as you think. They've had some ups and downs, there's been some games where you see what's down the road in the future, and there's other times when you think 'oh okay, that's why they're here, they're not quite ready yet.' I think that's good for them too. Things coming too easy too soon is never a good thing."
For Kupari, this marks a rare opportunity for a player to defend a title. The 19-year-old forward is a two-time veteran of this tournament and helped lead Team Finland to a gold medal last season, as he defeated Mikey Anderson and Team USA.
"Yeah, I think it's my last time to be [eligible] to play in the World Juniors, so it's exciting. I can't wait to play there and show how I can play. I'll try to do my best and play for the team," Kupari said.
Kupari tallied five points (1-4-5) in the 2019 edition of the tournament and also skated in five games with Finland in 2018 as a 17-year-old. Kupari collected an assist in the gold-medal game, which ended on a Kappo Kaako game-winning goal with just 1:26 left in regulation. Kupari is expected to be a leading contributor for Team Finland at this season's tournament.
For both Kupari and Bjornfot, the tournament will represent a switch. Both players go from being the younger players in Ontario, to being two of the more accomplished players in the entire tournament.
"I think it's going to be a little bit different, bigger rink and younger guys," Kupari said. "But I've played in this tournament twice, so I think I know what to expect. Just play my game and play for the team."
Both players are looking forward to representing their nations again. Kupari called playing for Team Finland "a big honor" and will be expected to be an offensive standout for Suomi. Bjornfot would be making his World Juniors debut, but as an 18-year-old with NHL and AHL experience, would still be expected to be a leader and a contributor with the team.
"Yeah, that will be fun," Bjornfot said. "I have some good buddies on that team too, so it will be so much fun, going to have a good time….it's a big honor to play for Team Sweden, of course. It's huge for me."
The two teammates will turn rivals on the opening game of the tournament on Boxing Day. Kupari's Finland takes on Bjornfot's Sweden in the first contest for both teams, a game that will begin at a friendly 10 AM in California time.