KITCHENER, Ont. - It's already been a banner hockey season for a handful of players vying for the Memorial Cup this week.
Five members of the Canadian team that won a fourth straight gold medal at the world junior championship earlier this year are attempting to join a select group who have won both world junior gold and a Memorial Cup in the same season.
They are forward Matt Halischuk and goaltender Steve Mason of the Kitchener Rangers, forward Shawn Matthias and defenceman P.K. Subban of the Belleville Bulls and Gatineau Olympiques winger Claude Giroux.
Three were called up by NHL clubs in the weeks after beating Sweden in overtime Jan. 5 in Pardubice, Czech Republic.
Matthias, from Mississauga, Ont., barely had time to catch his breath after assisting on Halischuk's overtime winner before the Florida Panthers summoned him for a four-game stint in the NHL starting Jan. 18.
He scored his first two NHL goals in his second game against Washington.
"When you get called up to the NHL and you're about to play your first game, it's a dream come true," Matthias said. "I don't think you really worry about the fatigue part of it and I was on such a high, it didn't really affect me at all.
"To get that first goal is what every little kid dreams of. It was awesome. I've never had such a big smile on my face before."
While Canada's top teenagers often play exhibition or even regular-season games to start the NHL season, or join their NHL teams when their junior season is over, it's more rare they are summoned mid-season.
Giroux played a pair of games with Philadelphia in February and Mason was called up twice by the Columbus Blue Jackets in January.
"It was cool to see," Matthias said. "You know them and you're happy to see them do well. Giroux, when I saw that, I was pretty pumped and sent him an e-mail and he did the same thing when I was up."
Giroux, from Hearst, Ont., admitted he really wanted to score his first NHL goal after watching Matthias get his.
"Obviously I wanted to get a couple goals like him, but I guess I wasn't lucky enough," he said.
Said Matthias with a grin: "We were buddies at the tournament, so I've got bragging rights right now I guess."
Giroux wasn't too disappointed, however, as he played with on a line with Daniel Briere and Scott Hartnell in his first game and Hartnell and Michael Richards in his second.
"I'd say they're pretty good," he said.
Mason has yet to play a game in the Memorial Cup because of a torn ligament he suffered during the Ontario Hockey League playoffs April 8.
He required surgery on it and has been rehabilitating for a month. The Rangers haven't ruled out his return to the lineup in this tournament.
Mason was twice an emergency call-up for the Blue Jackets in January due to Pascal Leclaire's illness and then injury.
Although the six-foot-three, 186-pound Mason didn't see any game action, he feels closer to doing so after his experience there.
"It gives you a little taste of what it could be like, so it makes you hungrier to get back up there," Mason said. "You get treated really well up and there and obviously it's a place I'd like to see myself in the future."
The world junior tournament is a gruelling month-long marathon for the Canadians from the first day they start trying out for the team to the day they board the plane to re-join their junior clubs at the conclusion of the tournament.
Mason, Halischuk and Matthias have all had long-term illness or injuries since the world junior tournament.
Halischuk missed 20 games with a high ankle sprain suffered Jan. 19. Matthias missed all but one game of the Ontario Hockey League post-season with mononucleosis.
Matthias was a second-round pick of the Detroit two years ago, but the Red Wings dealt him to Florida for Todd Bertuzzi at the trade deadline in 2007.
Giroux was a first-round pick (22nd overall) of the Flyers and Mason was drafted in the third round by Columbus.
Nineteen players over the last 26 years have won both a gold medal at the world junior championship and a Memorial Cup in the same season, but only four have done it in the last nine.
The stretch from 1998 to 2004 when Canada didn't win gold has kept that class small in number.
Corey Perry and Danny Syvret of the London Knights (2005) and Kenndal McArdle and Cody Franson of the Vancouver Giants (2006) were the most recent players to win the two most important tournaments in junior hockey in one year.
Subban, a Montreal Canadiens prospect, says it was Bulls captain Matt Belesky who reminded him of the possibility of a double.
He said 'How good would it be to win a world junior gold medal and also have a Memorial Cup ring to go with it?"' Subban said. "I said 'it would be pretty sweet'.
"It's in the back of your head, but you really have to work hard for it because everybody wants this so bad."
While it seems nothing could top the excitement Halischuk felt when he scored the overtime winner, the New Jersey Devils prospect says he'd be just as thrilled with a Memorial Cup.
"Both tournaments are really similar with the one-game knockouts," Halischuk said. "It's kind of the same tournament with the same stakes so it's really exciting to know you have an opportunity to win something like that again."