|Senators centre Kyle Turris was the leading scorer on a star-studded Canadian team that brought home gold from the 2008 IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship played in the Czech Republic (HHOF-IIHF Images).
His experience wasn't anything like the one the group of players wearing the red maple leaf are about to embrace on home soil.
But even hundreds of kilometres away, Kyle Turris
and his Canadian junior teammates felt the message loud and clear — gold medal or bust. And they delivered at the 2008 world juniors held in the Czech Republic, with Matt Halischuk's overtime goal edging Sweden 3-2 in the championship game. It allowed Canada to extend its gold-medal run to four at the world juniors, and they'd make it a high five a year later in Ottawa.
The world juniors have become a holiday tradition for Canadians from coast to coast, with broadcaster TSN reaping the vast majority of its all-time best television audiences for gold-medal games in a tournament that the network deserves a heaping amount of credit for growing into the event it has become today.
For the Canadian players involved, there is no escaping the overwhelming pressure at home to win gold — much as Hockey Canada tries its level best to insulate them from it. Turris, an Ottawa Senators centre, remembers receiving "quite a few" e-mails from home, just another reminder of the interest level in the tournament that exists in Canada.
"Everybody on the team definitely knows how important it is," said Turris, who was very aware of the world junior fever back home, even as he and his teammates played in front of smaller crowds in Pardubice. "For the most part, everybody grows up watching it and everybody in Canada lives and dies with it. It’s kind of the mentality of the team when I was there — and I’m sure it’s the same with every team — that if you don’t win, you don’t want to come home.
"All the players put a lot of pressure on themselves and it’s expected you’re going to do everything in your power to win. It’s okay if you don’t win, but the players are definitely frustrated if they don’t."
Turris led all Canadian scorers in the tournament with eight points, including four goals. No small feat on the team coached by Craig Hartsburg that featured a veritable who's who of future National Hockey League talent. Included on that 2008 squad were future No. 1 overall draft picks Steven Stamkos (2008, Tampa Bay) and John Tavares (2009, New York Islanders), along with current NHL scoring leader Claude Giroux (Philadelphia) and NHL regulars Drew Doughty (Los Angeles), Brad Marchand (Boston), Shawn Matthias (Florida), Wayne Simmonds (Philadelphia), Karl Alzner (Washington), P.K. Subban (Montreal) and Steve Mason (Columbus).
"We had a really good team," said Turris. "It was unbelievable. It was something I’ll never forget, that’s for sure. How Hockey Canada runs it is extremely professional. They make it a very exciting, memorable experience for everybody involved … the players, the fans."
He also believes succeeding in that crucible of pressure can help a player's development.
"It’s a great learning experience, that’s for sure ... especially for those who played (it) in Canada," said Turris, who was still age-eligible for the 2009 WJC in Ottawa but wasn't made available by the Phoenix Coyotes, who'd selected him No. 3 overall in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft. "Over in Europe, you knew about the pressure back home, but the Hockey Canada people did a great job of keeping the mood light and trying to balance everybody out."
After settling for silver the previous two years, Canada sets out on its quest to regain the gold later today, when it faces Finland at Rexall Place in Edmonton (3:30 p.m., TSN). Among those tasked with that goal is Senators prospect Mark Stone
, the Western Hockey League's leading scorer with the Brandon Wheat Kings and a scoring standout for Canada in pre-tournament action.
Among those hoping to block Canada's path is Sweden, whose roster features centre Mika Zibanejad
— the Senators' top pick (sixth overall) in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft — and blueliner Fredrik Claesson
, an Ottawa fifth-rounder this year. The Swedes open against Latvia later this afternoon.