This week, the best players under the age of 20 are at the 2012 World Junior Championships representing their respective countries.
But if you dig a little deeper, you’ll find that three of those young men are also representing the Pittsburgh Penguins – 2011 draft picks Scott Harrington
(Canada), Dominik Uher
(Czech Republic) and Josh Archibald
“As far as the organization is concerned, it’s huge,” said Penguins assistant to
the general manager Tom Fitzgerald. “This year, we have three. This is the most we’ve had. It’s a tremendous honor. That is representing the organization very well. The hockey world goes and watches this tournament and when they see Pittsburgh draft picks, it says a lot for our organization.”
Not only that, but in addition to Archibald the Pittsburgh region has a heavy influence on Team USA’s roster as four players from the Pittsburgh Hornets program – J.T. Miller, Brandon Saad, John Gibson and Stephen Johns – are all part of the team.
Playing in a high-profile tournament like this one is huge for a young player’s development for a number of reasons. But perhaps the biggest one is the high stakes that are involved.
When these kids eventually transition to the pros, every game is meaningful – and that’s something playing on a stage like the one they’ll experience this week teaches them.
“Whether you’re playing on a Thursday against Hershey in the American Hockey League or you’re playing against Carolina on Saturday, you put the Pittsburgh Penguins uniform on and there’s instant standards,” Fitzgerald said “So the World Juniors gives a kid a leg up on that pressure because you are at the world stage of that age group in hockey and any mistake could make the puck end up in the back of your net. It might mean your country doesn’t get a medal.
“And with any one smart, good play, that puck could end up in the back of other team’s net and you’re a hero. So that’s a lot of pressure for these young kids. With that pressure comes educating. It’s the conditioning of the mind as to how to just stay even keel. Not too high, not too low. That’s what hockey is all about. The World Juniors can give an individual a warm-up for pro hockey or an appetizer for what it’s like playing pro hockey.”
A player who can personally vouch for the truthfulness of that is Penguins rookie defenseman Simon Despres
, who won a silver medal with Team Canada at the 2011 World Junior Championships in Buffalo, NY.
When Despres, 20, donned Canada’s red and white jersey for his tournament debut, it was the largest crowd he’d ever played in front of at the time. He drew on that experience for his first-ever NHL game in Washington on Dec. 1.
“Just playing in big games, it helped me a lot for sure,” he said. “It’s playing in front of a big crowd in Buffalo, a sold-out crowd. It was the same thing in Washington, so it helped me a lot.”
Besides the Olympics, there’s nothing bigger on an international stage than the World Juniors for Canada. And the tournament continues to get more exposure here in the United States, especially after the Americans scored a stunning 6-5 overtime victory over WJC superpower Canada in the 2010 championship game to give them just their second gold medal in tournament history.
This year’s tournament is in the heart of the Great White North – Edmonton and Calgary, Alberta – so lots of eyes will be on these young men this week.
But no matter where their respective teams end up in the standings, Fitzgerald and the rest of the Penguins organization hope the prospects cherish their time at the tournament this week. Despres is certain they’ll do just that.
“The whole nation is watching us. It’s the biggest thing back home,” Despres said. “So it’s a very proud moment for young kids like us to be able to play in front of all these fans."