The 2018 World Junior Championship gets underway Tuesday in Buffalo, and for Stars defenseman Julius Honka, the tournament rekindles memories.
"Good memories," Honka said. "Good memories."
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Honka played for Finland at two World Juniors -- the 2014 tournament in Malmo, Sweden and 2015 in Toronto and Montreal.
The 2014 event stands out. Honka was part of the Finnish team that won a gold medal by defeating arch-rival Sweden in the championship game at a tournament the Swedes were hosting.
"That made it even a little more special," Honka said. "It was awesome."
Honka had come to North America for the 2013-14 season, was playing for Swift Current in the Western Hockey League and was off to a great start when he was selected to play for Finland at the World Juniors, which features many of the top under-20 players in the world.
He had just turned 18 and was the youngest player on a Finnish roster that featured several future NHL players, including current Dallas teammate Esa Lindell along with forwards Teuvo Teravainen (Carolina) and Artturi Lehkonen (Montreal), defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen (Buffalo), and goaltender Juuse Saros (Nashville).
"Lots of players that play here now," Honka said. "We had a really good team. Everybody was playing together."
But it was no easy ride to the gold medal for the Finns. They finished second in their group in the preliminary round with a 2-1-1 record, beating Norway and Russia, losing to Sweden in regulation and falling to Switzerland in overtime.
They played the Czechs in the quarterfinals, and when Czech center Radek Faksa scored 14 minutes into the second period, the Finns found themselves down 3-1. But the Finns scored four unanswered goals to win 5-3 to advance to the semifinals.
Riding a wave of momentum and confidence from the comeback win over the Czechs, the Finns rolled over Canada in the semifinals, 5-1. Finland scored two goals in a 1:51 span early in the second period -- the first one assisted by Honka -- to take a 2-0 lead.
When Teravainen scored on a penalty shot to extend the lead to 4-1 with 3:17 remaining, it was chaos on the Finnish bench.
"We were jumping up and down on the bench," Lindell said. "The coach had to calm us down."
It was Finland's first win over Canada at the World Juniors in 12 years.
"Yeah, that was a big win," Honka said.
That set up the dream matchup of Finland vs. Sweden in the gold medal game. The Swedes were unbeaten in the tournament and had defeated Slovakia in the quarterfinals and Russia in the semifinals. Sweden also had defeated Finland, 4-2, in the preliminary round.
And the Swedes had their own batch of future NHL players as well including Filip Forsberg (Nashville), Elias Lindholm (Carolina), Andre Burakovsky (Washington), Alexander Wennberg (Columbus), and Robert Hagg (Philadelphia).
"I remember the great atmosphere," Honka said. "The rink was packed. Good fans."
Lindell staked Finland to an early lead, tallying from the left circle 28 seconds into the game. It was Lindell's second goal of the tournament; both came against Sweden and both in the first minute of the game.
"[Esa] was good, really good," said Honka. "He was a big part of that team -- a big part of the defense. Like now (in Dallas)."
Sweden overcame that 1-0 deficit and a 2-1 hole in the third period to tie the game and force overtime where Ristolainen beat Swedish goaltender Oscar Dansk with a backhand shot to give Finland its first gold medal at the World Juniors since 1998.
The World Junior Championship gold medal was a huge deal in Finland where the television broadcast of the game peaked at about 1.3 million viewers, meaning almost one-quarter of the country's population was watching. After the tournament, the World Junior champs headed back to Finland to celebrate the victory with fans in Helsinki.
"We went back to Finland with the trophy and stuff. That was special," Honka said. "It was nice to win it in Sweden but then to go home to Finland and the celebration there, it was special to experience that."
Honka, who was among the most watched draft-eligible players in the tournament, played in all seven games for Finland and picked up one assist and a plus-one rating while skating on the third defensive pair.
"He was the youngest [player on the team]. I didn't know him at all before that," Lindell said. "I just knew that he was having a really good season. And, for sure, he played really well."
Honka was a projected first-round pick in that summer's NHL Draft in Philadelphia, and the Stars selected him with the 14th overall pick. Honka turned pro that following season and played for the Texas Stars of the AHL, but Dallas loaned him to Finland for the 2015 World Juniors in late December.
There wasn't as much team success this time. Finland finished seventh, and Honka had a strong showing and was named one of Finland's top three players at the tournament after tallying one goal and one assist in five games. It was another good experience for Honka.
"Any national tournament is awesome," Honka said. "Those are the ones I look back at and the memories. Special times."
Especially in 2014 when Finland won gold at the World Juniors in Sweden.
"It was a great experience," Honka said. "It was awesome to be a part of that."
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 at @StarsInsideEdge.