‘It’s gold or bust’: NHL players look back on World Junior Championship memories

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NEW YORK — Beginning on Jan. 2, the 2020 IIHF World Junior Championship heads into the medal rounds and this year’s tournament is shaping up to have quite a finish. 

Every roster is littered with future NHL stars. Some players, such as Canada’s Barrett Hayton, have already broken into the NHL ranks this season. 

It’s a unique moment these current players are experiencing: playing for national pride, wearing a jersey that represents not only their homeland but years of building a program to the point of reaching one of the most prestigious stages in juniors. All with one goal: to finally hear their country’s anthem with a medal around their neck.

Sporting News recently spoke to a few current NHLers about their experiences playing in IIHF World Junior Championship.

Shea Theodore, Vegas Golden Knights

World Juniors experience: 2015 gold medal for Canada

Best memory: I think just winning really . . . the whole tournament was a blur and it was an honor to wear that jersey and represent the country and, we had [an] amazing team behind us. It was just a lot of fun.

On 2015 team: I think we had a really really tight, tight group. I mean, it helps when you have the best player on the planet on your team in [Connor] McDavid. I thought we had a good solid d corps. Just it was a lot of fun and I think we cherish every moment.

Pavel Buchnevich, New York Rangers

World Juniors experience: 2014 bronze medal, 2015 silver medal for Russia

Best memory: Always good memories. I played two world juniors and both good memories, good things. We had a great team both years and everybody [was] close and good memories. Still talk to guys on that team. I think it was the final in Canada against Canada was kind of sh—y. Don’t remind me, don’t remind me one time (laughing). 

On 2015 final: We play final in Air Canada Centre, [fans are] all in red and of course, you’re nervous. But if you play a couple of shifts the nerves go away and you just play for your country. A lot of people from Europe come, especially from Russia, a lot of guys watching but you have to play well and forget you’re nervous.

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Roman Josi, Nashville Predators

World Juniors experience: 2010 fourth-place finish for Switzerland

Best memory: Probably when we got fourth place in Canada. It was pretty cool, it was in Saskatoon. I got hurt actually. I wasn’t part of the quarterfinals, but our team went on and beat Russia in the quarterfinals. It was pretty cool. 

It was awesome, especially the one in Canada was pretty cool with, obviously, so many people at the games and was really excited about the world juniors. But every world juniors I played, it was really cool. I played in the [lower Division I] once too and it was back in Switzerland and we won that so, that was pretty cool too. Fun tournament. Every one was different but fun.

Mitch Marner, Toronto Maple Leafs

World Juniors experience: 2016 sixth-place finish for Canada

On playing in tournament: The year I went, it wasn’t a successful tournament for us. It wasn’t anything to brag about but I just think the overall, just being with the guys, having your family over and kind of just experiencing it with them. It’s every kid’s dream to play in that tournament so that’s it. Just getting to wear that jersey again, being a part of that team. Like I said, it wasn’t a successful tournament for us at that time but still a lot of fun to be a part of.

WORLD JUNIORS 2020:  Canada’s complete game schedule, results

Mika Zibanejad, New York Rangers

World Juniors experience: 2012 gold medal for Sweden

Best memory: The highlight of it was obviously to win it. Just the whole tournament as a whole, we started in Sweden with our camp and stuff and had a good feeling actually; had a good feeling about the group, about the way we practiced, the way we prepared. We came to the games and I thought we had a special group and the mentality of that group, how it was in the locker room, at the hotel at the games, and everything. It was a really good feeling we had and no matter what kind of obstacles we faced we found a way to kind of get through it, around it, whatever. That was a fun tournament.

Kyle Turris, Nashville Predators

World Juniors experience: 2008 gold medal for Canada

Best memory: Oh, man. Winning the gold medal in overtime against Sweden is something I’ll never forget. Just the whole tournament. Hockey Canada is such an amazing organization. They treat you so well and to have the opportunity to play for your country especially [on that stage]. World juniors in Canada is like the Super Bowl, right? Everybody grows up watching it and it’s a dream come true when you get the opportunity. Yea, it’s definitely one of the best hockey experiences I’ve ever had.

On the pressure of playing in the tournament: When I was growing up it was always gold medal, so it’s kinda, that’s the mentality going in and it’s a good mentality to have because in Canada hockey is the game and you want to bring home a gold. There’s pressure but at that point, if you’ve made the world junior team you’re used to handling pressure and dealing with pressure and it’s just so much fun.

Ryan Strome, New York Rangers

World Juniors experience: 2012 bronze medal, 2013 fourth-place finish for Canada

Best memory: Well, we didn’t win so not many but no, for me, the world juniors I played one in Canada and one in Russia and I think the one in Canada was just unbelievable. I remember the one game, it was New Year’s Eve and it was in Edmonton. We went out and we played the Americans and like the whole arena was the loudest I had ever heard a hockey rink and just had complete chills. I mean, you’re 18 years old on top of the world, right? So, I think any time you represent your country it’s special but doing it in Canada was unbelievable.

On the importance of playing in the tournament for career development: I think it’s huge. It’s moments like that I think, other than playing junior hockey or whatever, next to the Stanley Cup that’s probably the highest-watched moment you’ll ever have. So, I think it’s good to experience the highs and lows. Whether it goes good or bad I think, you’ve been there, you’ve experienced either the great joy of winning or the depression of losing and you’ve kind of been through that. Especially being a Canadian, how many people watch it? There’s so much pressure on you. It’s great to compare yourself to other players in the world but as well have so many eyes on you. [Gives you] invaluable experiences that one day you can draw from.

Mark Stone, Vegas Golden Knights

World Juniors experience: 2012 bronze medal for Canada

Best memory: I was fortunate enough to get to play in Canada. The atmosphere at that age was the best that I had ever experienced and being a teenager playing in front of your home country in a tournament that, ultimately, Canadians take just that much more seriously than most other countries. I think other countries are starting to enjoy it as much as we do but since I was a little guy we’ve been waking up on Boxing Day watching that first game.

It’s a memory that I’ll never forget. I’ll always kind of remember it and enjoy the fact that I was able to play for Team Canada for the first time.

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Tyson Barrie, Toronto Maple Leafs

World Juniors experience: 2011 silver medal for Canada

Memory of playing in tournament: We lost in Buffalo to Russia [in the gold-medal game]. We were up, like 3-0 going into the third period and then — so not a great memory. But it was such a fun tournament. I had the whole family there. It’s a great tournament and one that I feel lucky to have played in but obviously would have liked a different result.

Artemi Panarin, New York Rangers

World Juniors experience: 2011 gold medal for Russia

Best memory: Maybe a couple days ago, just see the video on YouTube of us, our world junior championship. Enjoyed the video, almost crying, so it was a really good time for me and a big step for my career.

On the importance of playing in the tournament for career development: It’s really important . . . I never played before that tournament, I never played on the national team so that tournament showed me [a] real level. I understand [that] I want to look forward but I don’t know what’s best. That tournament showed me good level . . . and I keep practice for that, try and work. Last game in the final I scored two goals, only two goals in that tournament. 

Kyle Palmieri, New Jersey Devils

World Juniors experience: 2010 gold medal, 2011 bronze medal for the United States

Best memory: Well, I think that’s pretty easy. Winning gold in Saskatchewan 2010. Being a part of that team was pretty cool. It was a pretty incredible gold medal game and a lot of fun. Obviously, coming out on top was pretty memorable for me.

WORLD JUNIORS 2020:  Team USA’s complete game schedule, results

Ryan Ellis, Nashville Predators

World Juniors experience: 2009 gold medal, 2010 silver medal, 2011 silver medal for Canada

Best memory: I think just the entire tournament. We want one and got two silvers and others, so obviously winning is the more fun, the one you want to remember the most. The two silvers were [a] tough pill to swallow at the time but, nevertheless, it makes you better on the other side. The whole tournament is a great experience and brings all the best kids around the same age together and you compete for your country. There’s no better feeling than to play for your country.

On the pressure: Coming from Canada in a way that hockey’s our number one thing and the expectations are always so high. It’s gold or bust all the time. For the guys going out this year, have fun. It’s a once in a lifetime experience. The events an unbelievable event and you make some really close friendships there. Obviously we all expect, all of Canada expects to win gold but there’s some good hockey around there and it’s a fun tournament to just watch the kids compete.

On playing in a draft year: Looking back I don’t think you need to look at it so much and put so much stock in one game, one tournament. Obviously, each kid goes back and competes with their team and has a chance to prove themselves but that is the ultimate stage. I know I felt a ton of pressure and I’m sure the other guys feel it as well, not only to win but to, I guess, boost your draft stock. But your career, it’s a long career and there’s both ups and downs and you can have the best tournament and never play in the NHL or you could have the worst tournament and be the best player in the NHL. It’s always fun to compete and hopefully win but at the end of the day, it’s a long road.

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