VANCOUVER – With three games left to decide this year’s World Junior Championship in Toronto, there’s plenty of national pride swelling through the Red Wings’ locker room this weekend.
“It’s a great, big tournament for sure, and a lot of pressure,” said defenseman Xavier Ouellet, who played for Canada in the 2013 tournament in Russia. “There are always high expectations on countries like Canada and U.S., even Sweden, Russia. It’s a big tournament and really, really hard to win.”
All four semifinal countries – Canada, Russia, Slovakia and Sweden – have their own cheering sections on the Red Wings’ roster. The semifinals will be played Sunday in Toronto with the championship slated for Monday at Air Canada Centre.
Several of the Red Wings went out following Friday’s practice in Vancouver to watch some of the quarterfinal action, including Slovakian Tomas Tatar and Czech Petr Mrazek, whose countries faced off in an afternoon tilt. Slovakia claimed a 3-0 win.
“Yeah, we went right after practice to a sports bar and watched it on a big screen,” said Tatar, who played for Slovakia in 2009 and again in 20010. “It was exciting for sure. They beat Czech in a pre-tournament game too, so I think this year the guys have a great team and they’re playing really well.”
Now, Slovakia has a daunting task as they go up against Canada Sunday evening.
“It’s really tough, especially on Canadian ice,” Tatar said. “Those guys are fast as hell and big bodies. I’m not really worried about the physical play with Canada because our guys are working hard. It’s just more hockey wise with guys playing more games in Canada. That’s the hardest thing about (Sunday).”
The Red Wings had five prospects in this year’s international tournament, including American Dylan Larkin, the team’s first-round draft pick last summer. The franchise has also kept close tabs on Canadian defenseman Joe Hicketts, Finnish forward Julius Vahatalo, and Swedish forwards Christoffer Ehn and Axel Holmstrom. All but Hicketts were drafted by the Red Wings last summer in Philadelphia. Hicketts was signed to a three-year, entry-level contract following July’s player development camp in Traverse City, Mich.
“It's a tournament of potential and prospects,” Red Wings general manager Ken Holland said. “It's really a 19-year-old tournament. As the tournament wears on, the best players usually are 19 years old. Larkin's an 18-year-old so he's got another year to come back to the tournament. He's had a very good tournament. He's a good skater, good two-way player. I think he's done everything that Team USA would want. I was very impressed with the way he played.”
The Detroit franchise has 25 players – as well as coach Mike Babcock – who are alumni of the annual tournament hosted by the International Ice Hockey Federation. Current Red Wings who appeared in the World Juniors include Petr Mrazek, Justin Abdelkader, Joakim Andersson, Brian Lashoff, Tomas Jurco, Henrik Zetterberg, Darren Helm, Niklas Kronwall, Stephen Weiss and Jakub Kindl.
Red Wings’ minor-leaguers who represented their countries in the WJC include Teemu Pulkkinen, Mitch Callahan, Kevin Porter, Anthony Mantha, Tomas Nosek, Marek Tvrdon, Martin Frk and Tom McCollum.
Perhaps the most recent memorable WJC performance by a Wings’ prospect was by that of goalie Petr Mrazek, who made 52 saves in leading the Czech Republic to a stunning 5-2 victory over the U.S. in 2012.
“That was my first World Junior Championships and I didn’t know what to expect,” said Mrazek of the preliminary-round game in Edmonton. “It was a great experience; I think one of the best steps to playing pro hockey.
“That was a hard game for us. We knew they were going to come hard and play smart. They were going hard to the net and we had to be patient and see what happens. You have games like that when everything seems to hit you and they had so many chances, empty-netters and guys were blocking shots in front of empty nets. You have to have a game like that, it’s not happening every day. So I was happy that the game was against USA.”
Besides national pride, some Red Wings personally know a few of the players that will be competing for the gold medal in the next two days.
Kronwall knows Swedish forward William Nylander, the 18-year-old son of former NHL center Michael Nylander, and Ouellet once played on the same youth team as Canadian forward Fredrik Gauthier.
Last May, Tatar played with Slovakian team captain Martin Reway on the national team at the men’s World Championship in Belarus.
“We actually became pretty good buddies,” Tatar said. “He’s a big talent, he was drafted by Montreal but he decided to play in Europe this year. It does look like he can come to U.S next year and he might start in AHL. It’s really hard to come right to the NHL to play this kind of hockey right now at this level. But for sure he has the talent and with hard work a little luck he might be an NHLer.”
The general consensus among the Red Wings’ players is that Canada’s well-oiled machine is too good not to win the gold medal for the first time in six years.
“There are some big guys, even (Lawson) Crouse is a 16, 17-year-old who is 6-foot-4 and 210 pounds. That’s pretty amazing,” Ouellet said. “They’re all big guys and they’re all obviously skilled too. They’re a beautiful team to watch this year for sure.
“But home ice advantage, that last chance in the face-offs and little details, are huge in big games like that. You get that little advantage; you have to go for it.”