| |Sam Gagner practices at the 2007 tournament in Leksand, Sweden (Photo courtesy of Getty Images).
With the 2011 IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship well underway in Buffalo, New York, some current Edmonton Oilers have had the opportunity to reflect on their experiences at the annual post-holiday tournament.
A remarkable calendar year began for Sam Gagner
in December of 2006 when he arrived in Leksand, Sweden to participate in the 2007 tournament. Due to his age and experience at the time, Gagner’s ice-time was often limited as he represented the role of the team’s youngest player.
Even with that in mind, the very opportunity to play on the grand international stage was an unforgettable experience for the talented centre. Gagner played in all six games in the tournament and helped lead Team Canada to its third consecutive championship.
"It was great," Gagner said of the tournament. "I wasn't really expecting to go as a 17-year old, but it was a great opportunity for me and a great experience."
"I got a chance to win a gold medal, which is the pinnacle of World Junior hockey. It's such an exciting time and everyone gets so geared up; it seemed like we were in Canada a lot of the time with the fans we had over there. It was so much fun and it was a great experience for me and something I'll never forget."
Gagner believes that the success of the Canadian program had a lot to do with the fact that the team came together as a unit in short order. Under the tutelage of Head Coach Craig Hartsburg, the group was able to establish a special connection early on, Gagner explained.
"It's such a short tournament, so he (Hartsburg) has to bring guys together really quickly and make sure everyone's on the same page, and he did a great job of doing that."
"You have to make sure everyone buys into their role and everyone has to have a clear-cut role, especially from the get-go of the tournament. I felt like we were really gelling together as a team as the tournament went along, and were able to overcome some tough tests and some adversity and end up coming away with the gold."
The Canadian connection seems to establish a lasting impression. Part of the successful equation is the result of newly created friendships; something that Gagner says goes well beyond the locker room once the tournament draws to a close.
"You make so many friends just being around the game and going to those different Hockey Canada events. World Juniors are definitely a part of that and I find you create even more special friendships when you're winning," Gagner described.
"Obviously winning the gold medal with Andrew (Cogliano) and Ryan O'Marra, too, so those are guys that I get to play with now. But I keep in touch with some of the guys that I played on that team with, and I play against a lot of them in the NHL now, so it's pretty cool to get a chance to win with those guys."
Now considered a veteran of the NHL game at only 21, Gagner has a much different appreciation for the tournament as he delves into the older generation. In the four years since his involvement with Team Canada at the junior level, Gagner believes a lot as changed from his perspective.
"I think when you're younger, everyone's older than you and you're looking up to those guys. It's always so much fun to watch, just because it's the World Juniors, but it's definitely different being older and having been through it."
"I still watch and I'm still a fan of the game, so it's great to see those guys do so well."