Every year, the IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship showcases the world’s best under-20 on-ice talent.
It’s also a place where friendships are born and players leave with a bounty of long-lasting memories.
Currently, the 2006 World Junior Championship tournament is underway in British Columbia. It opened Dec. 26 and culminates with the gold medal game on Jan. 5.
The Pittsburgh Penguins have four prospects participating in the games: Russia’s Evgeni Malkin, Sweden’s Johannes Salmonsson, Canada’s Kristopher Letang and Finland’s Tommi Leinonen.
It’s nothing new. Historically, the Penguins’ organization has maintained a strong presence in the World Junior Championships.
Sidney Crosby and Marc-Andre Fleury, two of the team’s three first-overall draft picks, played in the tournament twice. Coincidentally, they were teammates on the 2004 Canada squad with Maxime Talbot and Stephen Dixon, who is on the roster in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. Team Canada took the silver medal in that tournament in Finland.
“That’s pretty unique. It was a great experience,” Crosby said. “You make friendships there that last forever. To have played with three of those other guys who are in the organization now and who could be teammates in the future, it’s pretty amazing. There’s definitely a special bond there.”
“I really enjoyed my time. I wish I would have got the gold at least once,” Fleury said. “I still had a great time though.”
Fleury was in net for Team Canada in 2003 and ’04. At the 2003 tournament in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Russia pulled out a 3-2 triumph over Canada for the gold medal, while the United States rallied for a 4-3 triumph over Canada for the gold in 2004. Despite those heartbreaking losses, Fleury relished the international experience he gained.
“I had a chance to play against the best junior players in the world. There are lots of scouts there, too, so it’s great exposure,” he said. “It gives you an idea what to expect when you go to [professional hockey]. It’s such a short tournament that you don’t have that much time, but it’s still a great experience.”
Fleury also cherishes the friendships he made. He gets the chance to see some of his former teammates often. Only now, they are trying to score on him.
“Almost all the guys from 2003 are in the NHL. I see them around the league,” he said. “It’s always fun to see the guys who made it.”
Crosby had the unique chance to play for Canada in 2004 as a 16-year-old. And, he became the youngest player to score a goal for Canada in the tournament.
“It was special. To get an opportunity that young and to go over there and experience that, we came so close to winning a gold medal. I think that experience really helped me to grow as a player and mature,” he said. “You’re playing against the best guys for that age in the world between 16 and 20. Most of those guys are going to play in the NHL. You look at the programs from the tournament and you see the names and a lot of those guys are in the NHL now. It’s pretty amazing.”
While Crosby won a silver medal in 2004, he captured gold as a 17-year-old in 2005. Team Canada stormed past a Russian squad, 6-1, which featured Alexander Ovechkin and Malkin, to win the tournament. Dixon was also part of that Canadian team.
“It was amazing – a dream come true,” Crosby said. “As a Canadian, you always watch that tournament. The way Canada embraces that tournament, it’s unbelievable. It’s a tradition – they watch every game. Everyone is at home watching that tournament. You were always glued to the TV no matter if [the tournament] was in Russia and you had to get up at 3 a.m. or whatever it was. To be in it and to win it was an amazing feeling.”
That World Junior Championship tournament was Crosby’s last. Although he has WJC eligibility remaining, Crosby is flourishing in the NHL as an 18-year-old. Therefore, he’ll always cherish his 2005 gold medal.
“The group of guys we had was awesome. I made some great friendships,” Crosby said. “You always play on teams that have good chemistry, but there was something about that team that I don’t think you could compare to the others. I think there are 10 or 11 guys that ended up playing in the NHL this year and that’s amazing. We had a dominant team and a really fun team to play for.”
The 2005 tournament was held in North Dakota, which made the championship even more special for Crosby and his Canada teammates.
“It was basically a home tournament for us,” he said. “There were probably 7,000 Canadian fans there. North Dakota is about two hours from Winnipeg, so it was amazing. I have a lot of great memories from there.”