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Five Panthers Heading To Belarus To Compete In 2014 IIHF World Championship

by "Hockey Pat" McGrath / Florida Panthers

An exciting year of international hockey continues this month as the top hockey countries from around the world will gather in Minsk, Belarus from May 9-25 for the 2014 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship. The Florida Panthers will be well represented in Belarus with five players competing in the tournament. Erik Gudbranson and Jonathan Huberdeau will be wearing the Canadian maple leaf while the trio of Jimmy Hayes, Drew Shore and Vincent Trocheck will be donning the red, white and blue sweaters of the USA.

The 16-team tournament is broken down into a pair of eight-team groups. The qualifying round will be played from May 9-20 and will consist of a round-robin, with the top four teams from each group advancing to the quarterfinals.

Canada and Sweden headline Group A along with the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Group B features Team USA along with perennially dangerous teams Finland, Russia and Switzerland.

Surprisingly, given their recent Olympic gold medal performance in Sochi, Canada comes into the tournament ranked third in the IIHF World Rankings. This is because, in addition to the Olympics, the IIHF Rankings factor in the four previous World Championships dating back to 2010. During that time, Canada has not finished higher than fifth at the Worlds. However, as any observer of the Stanley Cup Playoffs can tell you, ranking and seeding can be thrown out the window once the puck is dropped.

The Panthers pair representing Team Canada in Belarus will look to help buck that trend of poor World Championship showings. Both Huberdeau and Gudbranson have represented their country at the junior level, but this will be each player’s first time lacing up the skates with the senior squad.

Huberdeau recorded a combined 18 points (4-14-18) in his two World Junior Championship appearances (2012, 2013) and helped Canada capture the gold medal at the 2010 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament. Gudbranson tallied five points (3-2-5) at the 2011 WJC, where he helped Canada win silver.

The honor of putting on the Canadian jersey, which has been worn in international competition by a list of the game’s greats including Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and Bobby Orr, is not lost on Gudbranson, who made it clear that bringing home a gold medal is the one and only goal for this foray to Belarus.

“It’s a huge honor to be able to do that. I don’t think there is any other feeling,” Gudbranson said. “It’s a very unique feeling to wear that jersey and not many people in Canada get to do that. The end game for us as always is to come back with a gold medal and that’s what I’m heading over to do.”

Panthers VP of Broadcasting & Alumnus Randy Moller, who was on Canada’s gold-medal winning squad at the 1982 World Junior Championship, echoes Gudbranson’s sentiments.

“Representing your country is an incredible honor,” said Moller, who did not hesitate to add, “It is even more incredible when you win.”

As is often the case in international competitions, Canada will be a gold medal favorite in Belarus. Huberdeau and Gudbranson will join a roster filled with rising stars and established veterans. The 20-year old Huberdeau and 22-year old Gudbranson will skate alongside 2013-14 rookie standouts including Calgary’s Sean Monahan (19), Winnipeg’s Mark Scheifele (21) and Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon (18) as well as a group of veterans that includes Washington’s Joel Ward and Jason Chimera, Ottawa’s Kyle Turris, and former Panther and current Vancouver Canucks defenseman, Jason Garrison. The goaltending duties will be handled by the trio of James Reimer (TOR), Ben Scrivens (EDM) and Justin Peters (CAR).

Defenseman Erik Gudbranson (right) played in the 2011 World Junior Championship, helping Canada capture a silver medal.

The roster, like others, may be updated as NHL teams - and their players from the respective nations competing at the Worlds - are eliminated from the Stanley Cup Playoffs and their players jet off to join their respective national teams.

Team USA will be looking to build off their third place finish at last year’s Worlds. The sixth-ranked Americans will be bringing a youth heavy roster to Belarus that includes Hayes (24), Shore (23) and Trocheck (20). The Florida forwards, all of whom have competed in junior national-level competitions, will each be representing the national men’s squad for the first time but have achieved notable success in the junior ranks.

Hayes was a member of the silver medal U.S. Team at the 2007 IIHF World U-18 Championship. Shore was on the bronze medal winning team at the 2011 WJC and the gold medal winning squad at the 2009 World U-18s. Most recently, Trocheck helped Team USA capture gold at the 2013 WJC, recording six points in seven games.

Like Moller, who was joined by his brother Mike on Team Canada in 1982, Hayes will see a very familiar face in the Team USA locker room as his brother Kevin, who just completed his college career at Boston College, has also been selected to the team.

In addition to the trio of Panthers forwards and the brothers Hayes, there are a number of players on the US roster with Panthers connections. Forward Peter Mueller played with the Panthers during the 2012-13 season and goalie Tim Thomas played 40 games for the Panthers this season before being traded to Dallas. The roster also includes two of the top rookie defensemen this past season in Nashville’s Seth Jones and Winnipeg’s Jacob Trouba.

Panthers General Manager Dale Tallon, who sits on the advisory board of Team USA and is involved in player and personnel selection, will also be in Belarus for the tournament.

The preliminary round gets underway on Friday, May 9 for both North American teams. Canada will start their tournament against France while the US will take on host-country Belarus in their first game. For the five young Panthers competing in the tournament, these games will mark the beginning of a quest to bring home gold and glory for their countries, while gaining some invaluable experience playing with, and against, high-end talent in a high-pressure setting.

For regular updates on the tournament, including thoughts and quotes from the competing Panthers players, be sure to check in frequently with and on Twitter at “@FlaPanthers”.

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