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Stars fondly recall World Juniors experiences

by John Tranchina / Dallas Stars

With the World Junior Championship tournament taking place over the past week in Calgary and Edmonton, the attention of much of the hockey community has been focused on this best-on-best competition for players 16-20 years old.

For the Dallas Stars players, watching the tournament provides both an opportunity to re-live some past glory (and heart-ache), as well as a chance to engage in some friendly wagering and needling over each nation’s performance.

Over half of the Stars’ roster participated in past WJC tournaments as teenagers, and for most of them, it was their first real taste of elite-level global competition and the glaring spotlight that accompanies it.

“It’s really your first test of competing against the best in the world, and playing with the best in the world,” said Stars captain Brenden Morrow, who won a silver medal with Team Canada in 1999. “You play in junior in All-Star Games, but this is the best players in Canada, so you kind of realize at a young age, at 17 or 18, that you can compete and you’re one of the best in the world and it gives you confidence. And the kind of camaraderie and friendships that last forever with those teams that you’re together with for just a couple of weeks.”

“It’s obviously a lot of fun,” agreed winger Eric Nystrom, who represented Team USA at both the 2002 and ’03 tournaments. “At that level, when you’re that age, there’s not much known about those other countries and the kids that are playing (in Europe), so it’s your first chance to really see what they have and see where you fit against them. Any time you represent your country, it’s an honor, it’s an awesome experience. Just to know that you’re in the top 20 kids in the country for that age group and you’re going to battle other nations’ best - it’s just a different feeling of pride. It’s pretty special.”

As Nystrom indicated, the WJC, which usually runs from Christmas day through Jan. 4 or 5 each year, is also normally the first time North American kids compete with players from Europe and vice versa, and depending on which continent hosts it, their first time skating on the other’s differently-sized ice surfaces (in Europe, rinks are 200 feet long by 100 feet wide versus 200 by 85 in North America). In that sense, it’s a really eye-opening event for many kids.

“Playing junior hockey at home in Sweden in a second-grade league or whatever it was, and coming over and playing against American and Canadian kids, you get a little taste of the smaller rinks and all that,” noted defenseman Nicklas Grossman, who suited up for Sweden during the 2005 tourney that was held in Grand Forks, North Dakota and featured a large portion of Canadian fans in attendance. “It was a great experience. You just put that in the bag, and I still remember a lot of the games, playing against Canada with a full house, everyone screaming, hating us. It’s fun, it’s something you always remember and it’s fun to see the kids on TV (now) doing the same thing.”

“Not a lot of kids get to do it, it was cool to play for something bigger than just your city or your university team,” added American defenseman Alex Goligoski, who also played in that 2005 competition, on home ice. “It’s tough, because it’s kind of just throw a team together and go and finding chemistry is tough, but in our year, Russia had Ovechkin and Malkin and the Canadian team had Crosby and all those guys. It was a really high level.”

As Goligoski pointed out, it can sometimes be a challenge for teams to cultivate the proper chemistry in such a short tournament, especially when each squad usually only gets less than a week to practice and game plan before the festivities begin.

“Everybody has to do it,” noted winger Michael Ryder, who helped Canada take home bronze in the 2000 tourney that took place in Sweden. “You go over there and you only get a few days to get ready and prep for everything and it’s who can put things together better and gel together the quickest.”

Only one player on the Stars has actually experienced the ultimate thrill of winning it all, as Jamie Benn was a key contributor to Canada’s 2009 championship squad, which triumphed on home soil for the country’s fifth straight gold medal.

“Home ice made it extra special in Ottawa there, we had a good team, a great group of guys and good coaches,” said Benn, who scored four goals and six points in six games that year. “We just came together and had the country behind our backs. You didn’t want to be the team that ended the streak. It was a little bit nerve-wracking at times, but that’s when you come together as a group and that’s what we did. Winning that gold medal was pretty special for all of us.”

And with many of the players keeping an eye on the current incarnation of the tournament, plenty of trash talking can be heard around the locker room, with international bragging rights hinging on the results each day. With alumni from six different participating countries represented, the verbal sword-play can get intense.

“For sure, there’s some rivalries,” acknowledged Grossman. “We have a lot of different nationalities on the team - Finns, Czech, Swedish, Danish - so there’s a little chirping going on, but that’s fun. You always keep an eye on the TV and you can chirp the guys after, so it’s always fun to see how it turns out.”

Not surprisingly, one of the biggest rivalries in the room is Canada-USA, and after the US (backstopped by the Stars’ first-round draft choice in 2010 at 11th overall, goaltender Jack Campbell) was eliminated from medal contention, coupled with a 3-2 loss to Canada Saturday night, the Canadian players have dominated the conversation this year.

“I don’t know if any cash has been exchanged, but it’s a lot of bragging rights,” Morrow confirmed. “The poor Americans in here, it was tough coming in knowing they’re out of the tournament.”

“A lot of excuses from all the US guys,” Benn added. “I guess they’re a little down, I never heard so many excuses about why they didn’t win, but we like giving it to them. We like having fun, I think that’s the biggest part.”

Two of the Americans found it almost amusing how antagonistic the Canadians on the team could be over the competition.

“They’re so into it,” Goligoski said. “It’s funny, you don’t hear a word from them, the Canadians, about anything and then they want to bet on the World Junior tournament.”

“Yeah, but I always say, ‘We’ll give you guys one sport you can be better than us at,’” laughed Nystrom, confirming he’d received plenty of lip from his Canadian teammates about the US performance this year. “We always have TSN on (in the dressing room) and their coverage is spectacular, they have every highlight, every game, everything that’s going on, so every day we come in, we watch the highlights and see what teams are doing. We keep a pretty close eye on it.”

One thing that unites all of the WJC alumni is the fact that each emerged from the competition with enduring memories - some good, some not - they will never forget.

“It was a pretty cool experience,” said Benn of Team Canada’s gold medal win in 2009. “I think we went through some pretty dramatic moments in games, being down to the US 3-0 early and then scoring with five seconds left against the Russians and then winning in a shootout. I guess we did it the hard way, but it was well worth it.”

“My second year was in Halifax,” recalled Nystrom of the 2003 tourney in which the US lost the bronze medal game and finished fourth. “We played Canada in the semi-finals and the atmosphere in there was electric and that’s a game I’ll never forget.”

“As a kid, you watch it all the time and you want to be in that spot, you want to play in it, and just getting that opportunity was pretty great,” Ryder said of the 2000 tournament. “I just enjoyed it, went over there and got the bronze. It was an experience I’ll never forget. It was in Sweden, it was dark all the time, I remember that. My parents came over for it, so it was pretty nice.”

“Our first game in the tournament, it was the first game of the tournament, it was Christmas night, we played Russia and I think we beat them 6-5,” recounted Goligoski of Team USA in 2005. “That was a really cool game. Other than that, I remember opening presents in the pool area of the hotel. Merry Christmas.”

“I had a pretty good game personally against Kazakhstan, six or seven points in one game and I think I finished tournament with one more than that, so that was pretty good,” said Morrow, who recorded a goal and five assists in that 12-2 quarter-final victory but was devastated when Russia beat Canada in overtime of the final. “It was in Winnipeg, in Canada, in front of your own fans, you had the white-out - for an 18-year-old kid, it was an amazing feeling. The biggest game, and what I will always remember, is having a chance for gold and ending up with silver. Those are tough memories, but still something that probably shaped me as a hockey player.”

With the 2012 tournament quarter-finals on Monday and the semi-finals Tuesday, a new generation of players are gaining that valuable experience - and you can be sure the Stars players will be dialed in to how it all unfolds, leading up to the gold medal contest on Thursday on the NHL Network.

“It’s a great experience, I think, for young kids, especially now when it’s up in Canada,” said Grossman. “We played in Grand Forks, so it’s pretty cool for European kids like us coming over, it was big. I remember the fans were crazy and just playing against these top teams, it’s a lot of fun. It’s a great experience and it’s something you remember for the rest of your life.”

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