by Marc Ciampa
As much of a tradition as turkey dinner and exchanging gifts, the World Junior Hockey Championships have become almost a rite of passage over the holidays.
For 13 members of the Edmonton Oilers, they have not only been part of the tradition of watching the game they have also travelled the globe and represented their nation as part of the tournament.
13 Players, 5 Countries, 10 Medals
"It was something I watched as a kid and to get to be a part of it, for the first time to play for your country was awesome," said Oilers captain Jason Smith, a member of the 1993 gold-medal winning team.
"Going into the tournament (Canada) was coming off a disappointing year the year before," Smith continued. "Sweden had Naslund and Forsberg and they were the favourite going in. We ended up playing them the first game and winning. We just kind of built momentum and played well as a team."
Both Jason Smith and Ryan Smyth
, who won the Gold Medal in 1995, played in the tournament before there was a Gold Medal Game. At that time, the medal was awarded to the team with the best record through the Round Robin.
Smiths win over Sweden was a big one, as the host nation did not lose another game. Canadas only loss in 1993 came at the hands of Czechoslovakia after his team had already clinched Gold. Both Canada and Sweden finished 6-1-0 with the Canadians taking the medal as a result of that big victory to open the tournament.
Two years later, Ryan Smyths 1995 squad won top honours and also became the first Canadian team to ever go 7-0-0.
"We won all seven games," said Smyth. "It was weird and ironic, we won it in Game 6. After the game in the dressing room we heard that it turned out we were Gold Medal champions already but we won the seventh game anyway."
For Smyth, it was extra special to win Gold on his home soil. The tournament that year was played in Red Deer, a lasting memory for a kid born in Alberta. Smyth was also drafted by the Oilers the previous June and had an opportunity to play his first-ever game in what was then Northlands Coliseum.
"It was very nerve wracking knowing (the Oilers management) was going to be around and knowing all eyes were watching. It was very special to be on the team first of all, and it being in Canada and Alberta, Calgary and Edmonton."
Raffi Torres and Jarret Stoll were teammates on the 2001 Bronze Medal winning team.
"We went over to Moscow, Russia. Stolly was there. We had a lot of fun, obviously bringing back a medal was a big part, too," stated Torres.
"I think youre pretty much family for a month, going to a different country, different surroundings a whole new way of life," remarked Stoll. "You can feel the support of the country when youre over there."
After a successful experience in 2001, Stoll played again in 2002 and this time was named captain.
"Any time youre named captain (its a great honour). On those kind of teams, every guys a leader," he said. "Three quarters of the team were captains on their junior team so my job as captain was pretty easy."
The fifth Oiler to play for Team Canada was Joffrey Lupul. His team played at the 2003 tournament in Halifax and took Silver.
"It was the first time I ever got a chance to represent my country so that was special and it was in Canada so that was good–being around fans that take junior hockey so seriously," he said.
The tournament experience isnt always a memorable one, however. For Oilers forward Petr Sykora he remembers coming up short on more than one occasion.
"Not good," laughed Sykora about his World Junior memories. "One we finished sixth (1995) and one we finished fifth (1994)."
"But I had a great time. Playing together, trying to show off in front of the scouts and play our best. It was awesome because my first one was in Czech. A lot of people were watching it; all my family was there. It was my first big tournament."Ladislav Smid
also got his fill of the tournament, playing for the Czech Republic in three straight seasons: 2004, 2005 and 2006. He had mixed results, finishing sixth last year in Vancouver as team captain but helping his team take home the Bronze the year before.
"I remember three years ago we finished the tournament third. It was the first medal after five, six years so it was great for the Czech Republic," he said.
For American players Marty Reasoner, Brad Winchester and Matt Greene the tournament was as much about growing the USA Hockey program as it was about gaining a medal.
Of the four tournaments total the trio played in, only Reasoner came away with a medal but each team did its part in laying the groundwork for the United States first Gold Medal in 2004.
Reasoners 1996 squad had high expectations but fell short despite being the host nation, finishing fifth. The tournament was in Boston, which was where Reasoner was playing college hockey at the time.
"It wasnt a good experience because we didnt play very well," he noted. "But it was fun just being in Boston."
The following year, Reasoner and his Team USA rose to the occasion and claimed Silver, dropping the final game 2-0 to Canada.
"At the time, the U.S. team hadnt gone that far in a long time so it was exciting for us. It was a good step for USA Hockey. It showed we could compete and play at that big a scale," Reasoner said. "There was a lot of momentum after the World Cup, a lot of excitement for USA Hockey. To play for the Gold against Canada was a good experience."
In 2000, Brad Winchester suited up for a Team USA squad that finished fourth.
"Its a very exciting tournament to play in, especially representing your country and being able to play with a lot of great players," he said.
In 2003, Matt Greenes American side also lost out in the Bronze Medal game to finish in fourth place.
"Halifax in general," Greene said of his favourite memory of the tournament. "It was an unbelievable city to host the event. We came out for warm-ups; I dont think I heard a song for the entire warm-up.
"It was almost like Rexall last year in the playoffs in terms of the thunder sticks, people going nuts and the way the town rallied behind the tournament was great."
On the World Stage
For many of the players, the World Junior Championships was their first opportunity to see how they stack up against the worlds best.
"It was a confidence boost for me. You hear all about the European guys and Canadian guys when youre playing U.S. college hockey but you dont know how you stack up," said Greene. "You see them on Sportscentre and read about them in The Hockey News and all of a sudden youre out there playing with them. You think you match up pretty well against them. I think its a huge confidence boost for unknown kids coming in and wanting to prove themselves."
Playing in their respective junior or college leagues, it was difficult for a lot of players to see exactly where they stood in terms of their draft class.
"You get a lot of exposure, every scouts there from every NHL team. Its nice to get out there against mostly 19 year olds and play against the best players in the world," remarked Lupul.
"You realize the steps and the jump that it is. Its better hockey, its quicker hockey," said Stoll. "The mistakes are magnified even more so."
"You see all the good players around your age, you see how good they are," said Jussi Markkanen, who competed for Finland and finished fourth in both 1994 and 1995. "If you can compete with them it gives you some confidence. Its one step closer to making it to the pros."
For other players such as Ryan Smyth
, who had no post-season experience with his junior team the Moose Jaw Warriors, it was a chance to play hockey at a higher level and learn what it takes to be a winner. It was Smyths first international experience and "Captain Canada" has since gone on to play more games internationally than any other Canadian player.
"Don Hay was our coach at the time and he was really a more defensive guy," said Smyth. "With Kamloops, they won a few championships. I learned a lot from him about the defensive aspect of the game. I took a lot of that to the NHL."
Having participated in three different tournaments, Smid had an opportunity to play against a lot of world-class players.
"My first year was (Alexander) Semin, (Alexander) Ovechkin those guys," he said. "Second year (Ryan) Getzlaf, (Corey) Perry, (Patrice) Bergeron, (Sidney) Crosby so every year you have lots of really good players and every year was tough."
The tournament was not only a measuring stick for individual players, but also nations as Sykora made sure to point out.
"You can really see where you stand because hockey in Canada is different than hockey in Europe. Here, theres more games and in Europe theres more practices than games. I know Canada was dominating because of the junior hockey they have here but in the Czech Republic the last three years they tried to copy the junior leagues you have here.
"I think in the future well be more competitive with the Canadian teams."
Christmas Away From Home
Although the tournament has provided a lot of Christmas and holiday memories for fans watching at home, for many of the players involved it was often the first time that they were away from their families at that time of year.
"Hockey Canada did a great job making the guys feel comfortable," said Smith. "We still kind of had a Christmas away, had a Christmas dinner."
Not being home for the holidays was a small price to play in exchange of the experience of travelling to new and interesting places while competing at hockeys highest junior level.
"I was really excited to be a part of that tournament and I guess you take the good with the bad," said Greene. "Maybe being away for turkey dinner is not such a bad thing."
Other players, such as Joffrey Lupul and Ryan Smyth
, got the best of both worlds. For Lupul, his family made the trip to Halifax to celebrate Christmas while Smyth was already in his home province.
"I was away, but not really in the sense that we were on strict timelines. We had an hour or two that we could spend and I got to whip home but we stuck together as a team," said Smyth. "Thats where you build great bonds and great relationships with different friends that go on for a lifetime."
This story originally appeared in Oil Country Magazine