The World Junior Championship gets underway in Toronto and Montreal on Friday. Many of the top under-20 players in the world will suit up for their countries and set their sights on a gold medal at one of the season’s top international tournaments.
Canada will be striving for its first gold medal at the World Juniors since 2009, when the tournament was held in Ottawa.
Stars captain Jamie Benn remembers it well. He was a member of that team. It was his first time suiting up for Team Canada.
“It was pretty special,” Benn said. “You grow up watching [the World Juniors] every Christmas and you want to be there.”
Benn, 19-years-old at the time, was playing for the Kelowna Rockets of the Western Hockey League. He was among the top goal scorers in the league, but he had to take on a different role on a deep Canadian squad.
“I was a fourth-line grinder on that team,” Benn said. “It was much the same with the Olympics, you’ve got to come in there and change your role and do whatever it takes to help the team win.”
John Tavares, Jordan Eberle and Cody Hodgson were the big offensive guns on that Canadian team. Guys like Benn, Evander Kane and Tyler Ennis played on the lower lines. P.K. Subban, Alex Pietrangelo, Tyler Myers and Ryan Ellis helped anchor the defense. Dustin Tokarski logged a majority of the goaltending minutes.
But Benn was more than just a grinder. He was a power play specialist as well. Benn scored four goals in six games during the tournament, three of them on the power play.
“I got some power play time, standing in the middle of the rink shooting pucks,” he said.
His biggest offensive output came in Canada’s second game of the tournament when he scored three goals – two on the power play – and tallied two assists in a 15-0 rout of Kazakhstan. Even back then, Benn was low key in discussing his performance.
"It's a nice feeling, and I'm happy about it,” Benn told media after the game. “But it's one of those games where you can't get too excited.”
He also scored a five-on-three power play goal to give Canada a 2-0 lead over Germany in another preliminary round game. Canada went on to a 5-1 victory.
The Canadians went 4-0 in preliminary round play, including a 7-4 win over the United States, but the semifinals are where things got tense. Canada, gunning for a fifth straight gold medal, were down to Russia, 5-4, with less than 30 seconds remaining in the third period.
“I couldn’t believe what the score was,” Benn said of trailing Russia in the final seconds.
Canada was applying pressure and a nice keep by Ellis at the blue line with 17 seconds remaining helped keep hope alive. Tavares won a battle along the boards and backhanded the puck towards the net. A Russian defender tried to freeze it, but Eberle stole it and backhanded it into the net to tie the game with five seconds remaining.
“We had a couple of good plays in the zone and Eberle found a way to put it in the back of the net,” Benn said. “The rink went crazy. We were all going crazy. It was 20 young men with their dream of winning gold still alive.”
But there was still work to be done. Tavares and Eberle scored in the shootout, Tokarski turned away two Russian shooters and it was on to the gold medal game against Sweden.
There wasn’t quite as much tension in that game. Subban scored a power play goal 38 seconds into the game, Canada built a 3-0 lead by early in the third period and went on to a 5-1 victory.
“It wasn’t quite as dramatic. We owned them right from the get-go,” Benn said of the win over the Swedes, which allowed Team Canada to celebrate its fifth straight gold medal at the World Junior Championship in the nation’s capital.
“Playing in Canada, there is nothing more special. It was good to have the support that we had,” Benn said. “You got to celebrate with the guys you had just spent a month with. And with your family and friends. It was pretty cool.”
2015 World Junior Championship
Three Dallas Stars prospects are expected to play in the 2015 World Junior Championship. Dallas defense prospects Julius Honka and Aleksi Makela will play for Finland, and forward prospect Matej Paulovic will suit up for Slovakia.
“It’s great hockey. It’s great for their development,” said Stars GM Jim Nill. “It’s high level. It’s high pressure. And you get to play for your country.”
The World Junior Championship gets underway Friday in Toronto and Montreal and runs through Jan. 5. NHL Network will be providing television coverage of certain preliminary round games and all medal round games.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club. Mark Stepneski is an independent writer whose posts on DallasStars.com reflect his own opinions and do not represent official statements from the Dallas Stars. You can follow Mark on Twitter @StarsInsideEdge.