OTTAWA – Like many youngsters growing up in Canada, Dustin Tokarski ate, drank and slept in front of the television during the holiday season.
No, he wasn’t tuning in to It’s a Wonderful Life or even The Grinch Stole Christmas. Tokarski and his father were glued to the World Junior Championships, watching players from Canada’s junior ranks don the red and white in the top teenage hockey tournament in the world.
“We spent a lot of early mornings in front of the TV,” Tokarski recalled. “It is a tradition in Canada. You always watch the World Juniors on Boxing Day.
“I can remember sitting there with my Canada jersey on, ready to go.”
He just didn’t think that he would ever get a chance to wear that same Team Canada jersey in the event that he had religiously watched since he was a kid. Tokarski, now a junior star in his own right, lived the dream Thursday in an 8-1 tournament-opening win against the Czech Republic on home soil in Ottawa.
“This means a lot to me, to be able to put on the Canada sweater,” Tokarski explained. “It is a huge honor to represent your country. You know that everyone is watching and looking up to you.”
This will only continue Tokarski’s whirlwind of a year.
Not only did Tokarski, the Lightning’s fifth-round pick (No. 122 overall) in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft, not expect to participate in the World Juniors, he wasn’t even sure he was going to be drafted. Tokarski didn’t travel to the draft this past summer in Ottawa – coincidentally the same location as the tournament – because he wasn’t sure where he stacked up amongst the other available goaltenders.
Heck, Tokarski entered last season (2007-08) with the Spokane Chiefs (WHL) as the back-up goaltender.
How did he finish? Not only did he win the starting job, but Tokarski carried the Chiefs to a Memorial Cup Championship while grabbing the MVP trophy. During last season’s run, Tokarski posted an incredible 2.02 GAA with a 92.2 save percentage.
But that didn’t make Tokarski a shoo-in for the World Juniors. Not by a long shot.
Tokarski, 19, had to battle with three other elite goaltenders including Tyson Sexsmith, Jake Allen, and fellow selection Chet Pickard. They were third-, second-, and first-round picks respectively.
“Any time that you have four goalies battling for two spots, it can get pretty intense,” Tokarski said. “It is a good battle both mentally and physically. You have to be ready to go every day at practice.
“Heading into the summer development camp, I knew that I just had to work hard and do my best,” Tokarski said. “It was up for grabs at that point.”
Former NHL head coach Pat Quinn and his Hockey Canada staff liked what they saw. They invited Tokarski back for the final December tryout camp.
“Coming back in December, that is when I knew that I really had a chance,” Tokarski said.
“Up until then, I really just couldn’t believe it.”
Since winning the Memorial Cup MVP title, Tokarski has been on a roll. Things have been quite different in Spokane for the previously relative unknown goaltender from Watson, Saskatchewan. Tokarski is not only a household name around the league, but he has taken on more of a role in the Spokane dressing room.
“I have definitely been more of a leader this season,” Tokarski explained. “I have a really good back-up and I enjoy taking the time to help him out, and he helps me when I need something. We all work well together. Our team is a little bit younger this season but we are learning. The team is really good to me.”
Despite a younger, perhaps less talented team in front of him, Tokarski has been as solid as ever between the pipes. This season he is sporting a 19-6-2 record with a sub-2.00 GAA. He is getting a piece of almost 94% of the shots thrown his way.
But for now, all of Tokarski’s attention has been shifted to representing his home country for the first time.
In warm-up games for the tournament, Tokarski split the Sweden contest (4-2) win with Pickard. Tokarski made eight saves against the 2008 runners up. Tokarski played the whole game (14 saves) in a 7-3 win against Finland last Sunday.
“I am just really excited to have an opportunity to be a part of something special like this,” Tokarski said. “We have had a lot of practice and there has been so much intensity.”
“We just need to keep it simple. Everyone has been talking about our ‘drive for five’ [consecutive titles],” Tokarski said. “I can’t wait.”