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World Junior Championships A Special Memory For Stamkos

by Mark Pukalo / Tampa Bay Lightning

After years of blood, sweat and early-morning practices, the dream reward for most precocious youth hockey players is the honor of putting on their country’s sweater in the World Junior Championships after Christmas.

Lightning rookie Steven Stamkos found out how that feels at 17 years old.

“It was something I had watched since I was a little kid,” said Stamkos, who had a goal and five assists in seven games to lead Canada to the Gold Medal last year. “So to finally put on that jersey and represent your country was pretty special for me.

“I definitely had some chills skating out there for first game of the tournament and to win the gold was just icing on the cake. It was a tremendous experience, probably one of the best I’ve had in my career so far.”

Lightning goalie prospect Dustin Tokarski, picked in the fifth round last June, will get that same chance when the World Juniors begin Dec. 26. A second Lightning prospect, Dana Tyrell, made the team, but was injured in an exhibition and will not play in the tournament.

Tokarski, who led Spokane to the 2008 Memorial Cup, is off to another strong start for the Chiefs and will battle for playing time with 2008 first-round pick Chet Pickard in net for Team Canada.

“This is a tremendous opportunity,” Lightning GM Brian Lawton said. “We get to see [Tokarski] against the best young players in the world…We’re proud to have members of our organization representing their country in the best tournament in the world for under-20 players. We hope to have more in the future.”

While Stamkos starred in the Czech Republic, solidifying his ranking as the top-rated player for the 2008 draft, Tokarski will get to do it before the home fans in Ottawa.

“There will be lots of pressure for them, with all the media,” Stamkos said. “But you just have to use it all as an advantage and build off that atmosphere.”

Lightning defenseman Andrej Meszaros said he has great memories from his two World Junior Championship tournaments with Slovakia, even though his team did not do well. Stamkos soaked up everything he could during the two-week event, working alongside players he battled against in the Ontario Hockey league every week. He also played with several players that are now in the NHL, including Wayne Simmonds (Kings), Luke Schenn (Maple Leafs), Steve Mason (Blue Jackets), Kyle Turris (Coyotes), Brandon Sutter (Hurricanes) and Drew Doughty (Kings).

“It’s nice to get to know them on a personal level,” Stamkos said. “You may not have liked playing against them on the ice, but you find out they are good guys off the ice and great teammates. It gives you something to cherish with each other down the road. You make a lot of new friends.”

Meszaros and Lightning teammates Jussi Jokinen and Vinny Prospal, among others, played in the World Juniors twice and Stamkos, 18, could have played for Canada again this year. But the speedy forward has a job this time around. Stamkos has played in all 32 games for Tampa Bay with three goals and 10 assists.

He’ll never forget last year, but there is much more to come for No. 91.

“With all the veteran leadership we have on this team, the coaching staff now, it’s been great for me,” said Stamkos, who lives near to Mark Recchi, Gary Roberts, Ryan Malone and Mike Smith. “We’re not off to the start that we expected and, personally, I’m not off to the start I wanted to be at this time of the year. But you have to understand it is a learning process.”

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