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Annual World Junior Championships A Good Prep For NHL

by Staff Writer / Nashville Predators
Annual holiday tournament pits best teenagers against one another, and many use it as a launching pad to the NHL
By Eric Shuff

This time of year is an exciting one in the world of young hockey prospects as the International Ice Hockey Federation’s World Junior Championships take place in various locations throughout the world.

Each year on Dec. 26, the top young prospects from ten countries gather to compete in a two-week tournament for supremacy at the Under-20 level. This year’s World Juniors will be held in Buffalo, N.Y., at both HSBC Arena, home of the Buffalo Sabres, and Dwyer Arena on the campus of Niagara University. Participating countries in the 2011 tournament include Canada, Czech Republic, Finland, Germany, Norway, Russia, Slovakia, Sweden, Switzerland and the United States.

Players, coaches and general managers look at the World Junior Championships as a great tool to enhance a player’s skills and mentality for high-pressure situations. Many players see the WJC as a great step to move quickly into the NHL.

The Nashville Predators have three prospects in this year’s tournament – Patrick Cehlin for Sweden, Ryan Ellis who will serve as captain for Team Canada, and David Elsner of Germany.

This year is not the first time the Predators have seen their prospects make their way through the tournament, though. Several current Preds participated in past tournaments and have seen success.

Nashville’s captain Shea Weber competed in the World Junior Championships in 2005 where he was a part of one of the top teams in the tourney’s history. Weber’s teammates included Sidney Crosby, Ryan Getzlaf, Brad Richards, Jeff Carter, Dion Phaneuf, Patrice Bergeron and Brent Seabrook. This team took a dominating route to its first of five straight gold medals, outscoring its opponents 40-6 in the preliminaries, topping the Czech Republic 3-1 in the semifinals, then blitzing Russia 6-1 in the title game.

“Being able to compete with all the other young players that are touted as some of the best players in the world really opens your eyes,” Weber said.

Predators Assistant General Manager Paul Fenton sees the WJC as a place where the pressure of competing with the world’s top young players helps them develop new skills.

“A lot of times, the countries will take the best players and cast them in a role that they think they are capable of playing,” he said. “If someone ahead of them doesn’t do the job correctly, they’ve got someone ready that can replace them.”

Big-game experience and pressure was a common theme among several players. Defenseman Cody Franson felt the World Juniors experience has helped him manage the stresses of the sport long term.

“Any time you can get that kind of experience under your belt, it’s going to help you in the long run,” Franson said. “They’re high-pressure situations, and there’s a lot on the line. It’s going to help you when you are able to go through that kind of stuff and stay focused, calm, and play solid under the pressure. It’s something that stays with you for the rest of your career.”

Paul Fenton knows that the ability to play in big games is a great experience for young players to undertake.

“Whether they’re playing pee-wee, junior, college, AHL or NHL hockey, you have to be playing for something at some point in your career to gain that experience – to feel the difference between a regular season game and a playoff game,” Fenton said. “Ryan Suter and Shea Weber gained valuable experience in the championships. They won back-to-back years, Ryan’s team in 2004, and Shea’s team in 2005. They both came out with a lot more experience playing in higher-level games with a purpose in the middle of the year.”

Suter made his World Juniors debut as a 17-year-old in 2003, then was part of the United States’ first-ever gold medal-winning squad the following season. A veteran of the tournament by 2005, the Madison, Wis., native served as team captain and was named to the All-Tournament Team after leading all defensemen in points (1g-7a-8pts).

Predators forward Colin Wilson recalls the speed of the game and the pressure from the stands.

“It’s at a pace that you never really have played at before,” he said. “I wasn’t used to playing big games with big crowds, either. In my second tournament, we played Canada in front of 19,000 people. It was something we weren’t used to.”

Wilson participated in a pair of World Juniors for Team USA, tying for the 2008 tournament lead in goals (6) and ranking second on the team in points (7), before being named the United States’ Most Outstanding Forward of the 2009 team, finishing eight in tourney scoring (3g-6a-9pts).

Players must be prepared before the tournament begins if they want to be successful, and a team must gel quickly, or head home early

“The preparation is different because it’s short,” Weber said. “You’re only with the group for a short period of time, so you have to come together quickly. One game can make the difference of being out of it. It’s not a seven-game series. It’s win one game or it’s over.”

Some players develop or enhance certain skills when participating in the World Junior Championships. Upon being selected to play for Team Canada, Franson understood that his role would change from his usual role in juniors.

“When I played for my junior team (the Vancouver Giants), I was one of the top guys,” Franson said. “I played a lot of minutes on the penalty kill and power play, and I was just one of the guys you relied on. When I went to the WJC, I was more of a power-play guy and didn’t see a lot of extensive time. When you’re used to playing 20 plus minutes a night, cutting back is an adjustment because you’re not used to being used that way.”

Watching players partake in these new roles is helpful to their development, and it helps coaches understand how players can fit in certain roles as they continue their career.

“We try to utilize players in the roles that they’re capable of playing,” Fenton said. “You have the cogs to replace the parts you’re missing, so you expect the guys to be able to make the adjustment. Having this extra information helps us see how we can replace these parts.”

No matter what each player’s role was during their time at the World Junior Championships, they all have fond memories of their time there and the pride participating brought.

“You take pride of your team during the year,” Wilson said. “You’re not just playing for yourself and your team. You’re playing for a whole country of people. It makes you really patriotic, and you want to play that much harder.”

In this year’s tournament, the Predators hope their young prospects, Cehlin, Ellis and Elsner, learn more about their own game, and that these lessons translate into the NHL.

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