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Panthers Know World Junior Excitement

by Staff Writer / Florida Panthers will be on hand for the entire World Junior Championships in Buffalo, NY (December 26 - January 5). Keep checking, and for all of the latest including videos and stories with the prospects.

Michael Frolik (Czech Republic) skates against Nicklas Backstrom (Sweden) on January 4, 2006 at General Motors Place in Vancouver, British Columbia. Frolik played in four World Junior Championships. (Getty Images)
By Glenn Odebralski for

For hockey players growing up, there are numerous things that they hope to enjoy during their playing careers.

One of those begins Boxing Day (December 26th) as the 2011 IIHF World Junior Championship begins in Buffalo, New York.

Florida will have five prospects playing in that prestigious tournament with Nick Bjugstad (19th overall in 2010 NHL Draft) and Drew Shore (44th overall in 2009 NHL Draft) donning the United States jerseys while Erik Gudbranson (3rd overall in the 2010 NHL Draft) and Quinton Howden (25th overall in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft) suiting up for Canada and Joonas Donskoi (99th overall in the 2010 NHL Draft) playing for Finland.

Those players that get to play this year are in for a treat, and who would know better than players that got to play in the tournament before them. The Panthers currently have 12 players on their roster that have suited up for their countries in the Under-20 tournament at least once along with a head coach who has coached in the tournament before.

"Great experience. I've done a couple of those tournaments," said head coach Peter DeBoer who was an assistant coach for Canada in 1998 and 2005. "Next to playing in the Stanley Cup final, I don't think there's a greater thrill than representing your country on a national stage like that."

"It was awesome," said assistant captain Stephen Weiss who played for Canada in the 2002 tournament. "It was obviously a tournament that I grew up watching every Christmas and wanted to be a part of it. To finally make the team and to go over there and play in the tournament was a dream come true."

"Aw man. That was the most fun I ever had playing hockey up to that point," said Chris Higgins who played for the United States twice, in 2002 and 2003. "It was an honor obviously to get picked first of all but to go over and play, especially my first tournament, one of the most fun tournaments I've ever played in...Just had a blast. The time of my life."

"It's unbelievable," said forward Shawn Matthias who set up the game-winning goal in overtime of the gold medal game for Canada in 2008. "It's one of the best moments from just being named to the team, going to camp, just everything.

"It's the best Christmas present you can give to yourself and your family. It was a great experience. It's something that everybody playing in the tournament looks back at."

There will be a lot of memories to be had over the 10 day tournament.

"I think the biggest memory was my first year out, said Michael Frolik, a four-time member of the Czech Republic team. "I was 16 and I played Under-20 and we won the bronze medal. After that, we finished like sixth. That medal was probably the biggest memory. We had a good team. All those guys play in the NHL so it was fun, especially when you can do something for your country like that."

Player Country Year
Bryan McCabe Canada 1994G-95G
Tomas Vokoun Czech Republic 1996
Marty Reasoner United States 1996-97S
Bryan Allen Canada 1999S
Stephen Weiss Canada 2002S
Chris Higgins United States 2002-03
David Booth United States 2004G
Rostislav Olesz Czech Republic 2005B
Michael Frolik Czech Republic 2005B-08
Shawn Matthias Canada 2008G
Evgeny Dadonov Russia 2008B-09B
Dmitry Kulikov Russia 2009B
G - Gold  S - Silver  B - Bronze
"My second World Juniors was in Halifax and my parents actually came up and the one game they saw, I had two short-handed goals in one game," said Higgins.

The tournament is seen as the best of the best and the Panthers players know that the competition is about 10 times from what they're normally see in junior and college play. But that just helps them take the next step in their careers.

"It's a lot quicker and it's a lot better hockey than Juniors," said Matthias who finished the 2008 tournament with four points. "You have all the best players from all around the world. You never played against a lot of them. Most of those guys in that tournament should or they do go pro. It's the World's class of that age group. It's the best players around the world at that age group competing for a gold medal and it's a huge tournament so everybody is real competitive."

"It's kind of crazy. When it's happening, you're looking around the locker room and just from past tournaments, you're kind of like wow, a lot of the guys on this team are going to make the NHL," said Higgins. "It's kind of a surreal experience and be like wow, who out of this group will be on the NHL.

"You just look at that tournament in general, there's so many guys that play in that tournament play in the NHL. I think that's the cool thing about the tournament because it really is the best players in the world at 18-19 years old and to realize you're just as good as those guys, you have a legitimate chance to play. It's a big confidence boost."

"You're one of 20 of the best players in your country for that age group so usually you're going to find top draft picks and guys that are highly touted and even guys that could be playing in the NHL that are sent back so it's a really high skilled tournament with a lot top end players," said Weiss. "If you do well in that tournament personally, it gives you a lot of confidence going into your draft year or next year in the NHL or whatever it may be because you're playing against the best players your age."

With some time in-between games, the current Panthers players said that they will definitely be keeping an eye on the tournament.

"When I was a little kid, that was the thing at Christmas time, you watch the World Juniors," said Matthias. "Being from Canada, everybody on the street watches it. That's the thing to do around Christmas in Canada. You watch every game, it doesn't matter what time it is. If it's on during school, you watch it during school and when I played in it, everybody I knew was watching it and you get a lot of support from back home.

"Even now, even though I played in the tournament and I'm older, I still watch it. My family still watches it and it's still a big deal in my household and everywhere across Canada."

"You always watch those games," said Higgins. "Those are a lot of fun because you can always think back to your time when you're playing those big games and you realize what the kids are going through. It's pretty special."

And here's hoping that the United States, Canada and Finland all medal in some fashion come January 5th.
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