| |Canada's Ryan Murray guards his zone against the Czech Republic (Photo by Getty Images). MORE WJC COVERAGE
- The World Junior Hockey Championship has long served as the grandest international stage, pitting the world's best young ice-bound athletes against one another in a battle of excellence and perseverance.
Each winter, something special happens between the walls of Team Canada's locker room; and it just so happens that this year's squad has been able to procure that irreplaceable energy at home at Rexall Place.
Just ask 18-year-old blueliner Ryan Murray, a rookie to the tournament's atmosphere but no stranger to international experience, having captained Canada to a gold medal at the 2010 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament.
"It's unbelievable," he said, grinning and looking to his right where the rink's seating bowl could be seen in the distance. "I've never played to a crowd even close to anything like this, so it's been a great experience. We can't say enough about the atmosphere."
Nearly 17,000 strong, the crowd at Rexall Place has provided unrelenting support in their nation's perilous international assignment. It's been incredible, and the connection to pride is mirrored within the red and white's 22-man roster.
"We have some great leaders on this team," Murray said, explaining what it's like to be a rookie in this situation. "There are so many guys that play at such a high level and have been here, under this circumstance in the past. They've given me some great advice, too."
Along with Tanner Pearson, who's been slotted into a regular role in the absence of Devante Smith-Pelly, Murray is eligible to be chosen by an NHL club this June. At 6'0" and 185 pounds, he holds the No. 1 overall ranking among his Western Hockey League peers at the season's quarter pole.
"It's probably going to sneak up on me pretty quick," Murray laughed. "It's every kid's dream [to play in the NHL], so it's there in my mind, but I'm trying to think about the task at hand it starts here with Team Canada.
"I look at my game and think about the things I need to improve on to make the next level," he added. "It's a tough level to crack, and there are so many good players out there. I've got to work extremely hard, because I've got a long way to go to get there. It's an ongoing process."
Patrolling the blueline with the WHL's Everett Silvertips, Murray recorded six goals and 46 points in 70 games last season. It was a strong follow-up to his rookie campaign in which he notched 27 points in 52 games in 2009-10.
No matter how it happened, it was a seamless introduction to the WHL.
"It's all about cashing on your opportunities," he explained. "As soon as I got to Everett, they had some injured defencemen and I got a chance to step in right away when I was 15. [The coaches] believed in me to play on the power-play and in other situations, so I was able to contribute as a puck-moving, point-scoring player.
"I was given every chance to succeed and I took full advantage."
As such, his already exceptional talent has blossomed into something more; a near NHL-ready arsenal, agreed Canadian Head Coach Don Hay.
"Ryan's played really well," he said, noting Murray's +1 rating. "He's very composed, he does all the little things really well. He doesn't panic with the puck; he's very calm, deliberate in his play. He's one of our shutdown guys, along with Scott Harrington, and he's handled all the matchups we've assigned to him very well."
As Canada's smoothest skating rearguard, puck movement has been Murray's calling card since he was child. Having nailed it down with ease as he models retired and current NHLers Scott Niedermayer, Duncan Keith and Nick Lidstrom, he sees another, broader scope to help improve his game across the board.
"When you watch guys play in the NHL, they're pretty unbelievable, so I've got my whole game to work on," he chuckled. "You can never work too hard or too much, so that's what I'm going to do so I can get better."
Countless others have done the same, propelling to prosperous pro careers through the World Junior's exhilarating setting. It's provided players with vivid memories, cherished experiences and iconic role models.
"Canadians grow up watching this tournament. In 2008, I watched Logan Pyett win a gold medal; he was born in Balgonie, Saskatchewan, which was one town over," said the White City product. "He also played for the Regina Pats (WHL), so I had a natural connection to him and he was huge for me in watching them win."
Just like the camaraderie seen between current Canadian teammates, the World Junior Championship has helped mend the gap between grassroots excellence and the pro ranks through an exceptional exhibition of national pride.-- Ryan Dittrick, edmontonoilers.com
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