The most magical day of the year isn’t Christmas, it’s the day after.
Two words: world juniors.
Let me explain what the holiday period means for Canadians.
Of course it means presents, candy canes and spending time with family, but really, it’s about the hockey.
At Christmastime, when outdoor-rink season is in full swing, you get to play against all your cousins and extended family. When you’re out there, you don’t pretend you’re an NHL player. Instead, you imagine you’re on Team Canada at the world juniors.
There’s something more than patriotic pride that connects you to that team. When you’re a kid, the players on Team Canada are only a few years older than you are — you may even have watched them playing for the CHL team in your hometown. Or maybe they learned to skate at your local rink. Or maybe they are phenoms who have been in the national spotlight since they were 12 years old.
In other words, you know the players – and you know them in a way that no grownup ever could.
I vividly remember watching the 2002 tournament. My current teammate, Mike Cammalleri, was racking up points over in the Czech Republic. I think I begged my mom for a Canada sweater that year. Even before that, the first jersey I ever wanted was from the world juniors.
When you’re a kid, those players are like superheroes.
The tournament gets more popular every year, but in the U.S. I still run into people who aren’t familiar with it. I always tell them it’s sort of like March Madness. It’s a showcase for the best up-and-coming talent that the sport has to offer.
In college basketball, programs will have waves of good years and bad years, and tournament expectations will change based on previous results and other variables.
But at the world juniors, it doesn’t work like that, especially not for Canada.
There is one expectation for us every year: gold.
In other words, you know the players – and you know them in a way that no grownup ever could.- Taylor Hall
If we don’t win the gold medal, it’s a failure. End of story. It doesn’t matter how talented the other countries are, or how many injuries we have, or what circumstances are against us. If we don’t win gold, we’ve failed.
I’ve heard people say, “Well, how can Canada expect to win every year? Look at all the international talent in the NHL!”
They’re actually right. The rest of the hockey world is catching up with outstanding coaching and youth development, and it’s great to see. There are a lot of reasons why Canada is expected to win every year. The player pool we have to choose from is the biggest help. But for me, it really comes down to one thing:
How we pick our team.
Every year, some of the most talented Canadian players at the under-20 level are left off the world-junior team. For the 2009 tournament, I was one of those kids. I was 17 years old that season, it was my second year in the OHL and I was leading the league in scoring heading into the Team Canada camp. There was no doubt in my mind that I had the talent to make the team.
I want to stress something: The world junior tournament is every Canadian kids biggest goal, even before the NHL. Of course you think about lifting the Stanley Cup, or playing with the best players in the world — but you also really want to pull on that Canada sweater on Boxing Day.
So, I went to camp in December 2008 as confident as ever. But there I learned why the Canadians are expected to win every year.
They really turn up the pressure.
It’s a bit hard to explain, but when you’re a highly-rated player in the CHL, there isn’t that much pressure. You go out, get your two points per game and watch as your name goes up everybody’s draft ranking boards. At Team Canada training camp, the coaches want to see how you perform under pressure, because that’s what the tournament will be like.
Camp is filled with fast-paced, intense five-on-fives. There are 30 different scouts, directors, coaches and press watching you from the stand, tweeting your every move. The media spends hours trying to figure out which players will be cut and why. After every day at camp, you go back to your hotel room, where you’re told by friends and family what everyone has been saying about you. It gets in your head. It got in mine, and I had a bad camp. They cut me a few days before Christmas.
The 2008 tournament was the only one that I ever decided not to watch.
Canada won gold that year. They beat Sweden in Ottawa. The celebrations looked amazing on the highlights, and to this day it hurts that I wasn’t there.
I played the next 11 months leading up to the 2009 camp with a chip on my shoulder.
There’s no way you’re not putting me on that damn team this year.
I realized something when I went to the following year’s camp. Team Canada knew exactly what they were doing. They wanted that chip on my shoulder. Their decision to cut me made me into the player I am today. It’s all part of the process.
It was going to be our year. We had won five gold medals in a row, and we were hosting again. I’ll never forget playing this pretournament game out in rural Alberta. You have to remember, pretournament games usually include players who haven’t been cut yet — they’re not always great hockey. It was the dead of winter. It must have been –30° Celsius the night of the game. So, we came out of the tunnel for warmups, and the arena was packed — sold out for an exhibition game. That was when it hit me just how much the entire nation cares about world juniors.
For Canada, every game matters, but there’s one that stands above the rest. Do I even need to tell you which one?
Team Canada. Team USA. New Year’s Eve. Prime time.
For a hockey fan, it doesn’t get any better than that. Like, I actually mean that. It’s my favourite (that’s how you spell it, by the way) game of the year. Save the best for last, right?
We played a classic against the U.S. that year. A 5–4 shootout win that had everything: comebacks, disallowed goals, shorthanded goals (shout-out to Pietrangelo, what a shot) and monster saves.
It was a precursor to what was to follow in the gold medal game a few days later. It ended up being a rematch between us and the U.S.
Ask any Canadian hockey players how many times they’ve scored an overtime winner against Team USA in a gold medal game on their backyard rinks. My guess is over 20 times. It’s what you dream about.
But in 2010, that’s not what happened.
We settled for the silver medal after the U.S. beat us 6–5. In overtime.
When you’re that young, losing to the U.S. feels like the end of the world. There’s nobody you want to beat more. It was a pain that I’d never felt before. We felt like we let the entire country down — and in a sense, we sort of had.
That’s what makes the tournament so great, though.
For 10 days, a group of teenagers from all across the country get a chance to carry a nation. For 10 days, 35 million people want a Team Canada sweater. For 10 days, you live the dream.
Go get ’em boys. We’re watching.