OSTRAVA, CZE - When Matej Blumel was seven years old, the World Junior Championship was held in his hometown of Pardubice, Czech Republic, and he distinctly remembers being so excited watching Team Canada win their fourth consecutive gold medal.
Goaltender Steve Mason was the tournament MVP on a squad that also included future NHL all-stars Drew Doughty, P.K. Subban, Steven Stamkos, John Tavares, Claude Giroux and Brad Marchand. No wonder Blumel adored that Canadian powerhouse.
"My dad was a referee at the tournament and me and my family were at the gold medal game. I cheered so hard when Canada scored that goal in overtime to win the game. That was the moment that I thought it would be so cool to play in a game like that and I just loved Canada after that.
"My mom even got me Canada pajamas," he said laughing at the memory.
It wasn't until a few years ago, when Czech Republic was announced as the host of the 2020 IIHF World Junior Championship and Blumel realized that he'd be eligible to play that it truly became a goal for him to make this team.
"You watch the tournament and you think, 'Wow! That would be fun.' But, you're just a kid and it's not really a goal at that point, but when they made the announcement that it was going to be here, I knew I was going to do whatever I could to try to be on that team. Since then, I've been focused on having this opportunity."
After a strong start to the season last year with the Waterloo Blackhawks of the USHL, Blumel was invited to Team Czech Republic's World Junior selection camp, but was ultimately one of the last players cut from the team.
"I was sad about it because it would have been a dream come true, but I knew it was still a possibility for this year. So, I just focused on having a good end of the year in Waterloo and a good start to this season and earning my spot on the team this year. Knowing it was at home and all my friends and family could be there was probably the biggest motivation for me."
In the meantime, Blumel finished his season in Waterloo tied for 12th in league scoring. The Edmonton Oilers liked what they saw from the 6-foot, 200-pound forward enough to draft him in the fourth round this past June in his second pass through the NHL Draft.
"We liked the fact that he scored 30 goals in 58 games in the USHL last year," explained Tyler Wright, Director of Amateur Scouting for the Oilers. "He had been through the draft before so he was on our radar and when you're in the fourth round and have the philosophy that we're trying to add more scoring and skill and here's a guy that put up some big numbers, has good hockey sense, competes, goes hard to the net, has a good shot and a good release. We were intrigued by his potential and are eager to help him along with the development process and see where it goes."
Blumel was originally planning to go to the University of Connecticut this year, but ultimately decided to go back home to Czech Republic and play pro for his hometown team - HC Dynamo Pardubice.
"Pro hockey is much different than in juniors. It's faster and more physical and the guys play a lot smarter. You can't just skate around and wait for the puck to come to you. You have to be a lot smarter and think about how you're going to get the puck and what you're going to do when you do. There's a lot more strategy than just going out and playing," explained the 19-year-old. "A lot of the guys are like 10 years older than me, so they're really smart and strong and faster and it's really hard to play against them and I think it's really helping me to get better every day and that's why I came back here."
And also, mom's cooking.
"I wasn't sad in the US when I was there by myself, but it's definitely nice to be at home and have all my family members close to me. My mom, she cooks for me. I mean, I can cook myself, but it tastes better when she does it," he said with a smile.
Video: DEV CAMP | Matej Blumel
On the ice, Blumel's strengths include his speed, his shot and his vision as a playmaker.
"For sure, my skating is my biggest strength. My dad used to be a referee and he's skated with me since I was a kid and has helped me a lot, but I also think it can be even better," he said. "At Development Camp this summer, they brought in a figure skater from the Olympics and he showed us so much stuff about edge work and turning that I haven't seen before. That's probably the biggest thing I took away from that camp. I try to do a lot of the things he taught us before practices to help me get better."
He's also focused on winning more faceoffs - even though he's a winger because he likes to be prepared - being quicker with his shot and better on the backcheck.
"My role is to play as hard as I can and finish checks and be a two-way forward. I like to be kind of like a rat on the ice, but like to contribute to the offense too," he explained. "I don't care if I play top two lines and power play or bottom six and play PK. Whatever I can do to help is what I'm happy to do."
In their first game of the tournament, Blumel scored and played just over 16 minutes in Czech Republic's 4-3 win over Russia in front of a sold-out crowd of 8693 at Ostravar Arena.
"It's probably one of the best games and best wins in my life," he said after the game. "I don't have any words for it. I'm just so happy that I scored and could help the team win."
After the goal, he skated across the ice with his hands in the air both encouraging the crowd to get louder and soaking in the moment as it gave the host nation the 3-2 lead.
"I just looked up to the stands and saw all those people pumped up and the crowd is just crazy and it was just emotional. I was excited," he said with a huge smile on his face after the game. "I can't thank them all enough for coming and pushing us forward. They were like our sixth man and and I hope they're going to come on the 28th against Germany too."
Video: OILERS TODAY | Czech Mates 06.25.19
The Czechs haven't earned a medal at the World Junior Championship since they won bronze in 2005. Since then they've made it past the quarterfinals just once in 2018. They know they have an uphill battle, especially since they are in "the hardest bracket ever" with Canada, Germany, Russia and USA.
"We can't just go into the tournament and think all these teams are better than us and that we don't have any chance to win the game," he said. "We have to believe that we're going to do the best we can to win the game and we did it tonight. It was amazing. But that was just one game. Now, we have to do it again."
As far as his love affair with Team Canada, whom he will face in the final game of the preliminary round on New Year's Eve...
"I mean, I still like Canada, they invented hockey and I love hockey, but I love Czech Republic more and now I want to beat them," he said with a confident smile.