Flames reminisce about the old days
December 26 is when the future stars come out to play.
It marks the start of the World Junior Hockey Championship, this year being held in Calgary and Edmonton.
Wayne Gretzky. Eric Lindros. Sidney Crosby. All solidified their name in past tournaments.
And for some Calgary Flames, wearing their home country colors was a childhood dream they were able to live out in the world juniors.
“For kids who play hockey growing up in Canada, it’s a tradition to watch it growing up during Christmas,” said defenseman Jay Bouwmeester, who was one of only a handful of Canadian players to have worn a Team Canada jersey in three consecutive years.
“To actually have the chance, it’s the first time you get to represent your country, it’s a lot of fun.”
He said he got to see the other side of the coin though. While the world juniors has practically become a national celebration in Canada, during his three years, he saw what it was like in other countries. And it wasn’t pretty.
“The ones I played in were all overseas and once you get over there —people are excited about watching it back home — but there it’s not a big deal and there is no one at the games,” he said of the tourney in Sweden, Russia and the Czech Republic. “It’s kind of a weird feeling.”
The other unfortunate part for him was the fact he never got a gold medal.
“I never won the tournament so that was always a sour feeling,” he said.
It’s not as though he didn’t have his chances though. He ended up with a pair of bronze medals and a silver from his final year in 2002, a 5-4 loss against the Russians. He was named a tournament all-star that year as well.
It was part of the darkest time for the Team Canada at the world juniors, a seven-year gold medal drought.
However, the Calgary Flames have enough world juniors gold medals to go around — starting with Jarome Iginla.
While still a member of the Kamloops Blazers WHL team, Iginla won the gold in 1996, leading the tournament with 12 points in only six games, being named an all-star and the tournament’s best forward. In fact, he was traded in six days before the tournament to become a part of the Flames organization, in an exchange with the Dallas Stars for Joe Nieuwendyk.
Two thirds of the coaching staff have won gold too. Head Coach Brent Sutter picked up a pair at the helm of the 2005 and 2006 teams, with assistant coach Craig Hartsburg adding his own the following year.
Alex Tanguay and Cory Sarich have also played for Canada, with the latter winning gold in 1997.
On the international side, two Flames both played in the world juniors twice — Mikael Backlund and Roman Horak.
“It means a lot,” said Backlund of wearing the yellow and blue of his home country. “Both years, I was struggling at home and getting a chance to play for Team Sweden, I was excited and happy.
“It got me away from where I was struggling at home so it made me get my confidence back. After the tourney, I went to Kelowna (of the WHL) and if I didn’t do that, I wouldn’t be here today.”
During his first tournament in 2008, it was Backlund who scored the game-winning goal in overtime against Russia to put Team Sweden in the gold medal game against Canada.
However, just like 2009, he ended up losing to Team Canada, earning silver in both years.
“The first loss was tough, it was in overtime. But after that, I knew I would probably have another chance,” said Backlund, who finished with 14 points in 12 tournament games. “After the second loss, you knew it was your last chance.”
For Roman Horak, he admits his native Czech Republic didn’t perform well in his two years at the world juniors in 2010 and 2011.
“Every national team means a lot to you and if it’s either under 18 or under 20, it’s always a great experience,” he said, a member of back to back seventh place finishes. “I’m pretty sure it’s the same in Canada, but any chance you can wear the national jersey, it’s pretty great.”
As for other Flames players, Olli Jokinen won silver with former teammate Niklas Hagman in 1998.
Miikka Kiprusoff, Matt Stajan and Chris Butler were also part of the world juniors at one time or another.
Finally, Flames legend Theoren Fleury was apart of the most infamous world juniors ever during the “Punch-up in Piestany” in 1987.
During their final round robin game, Canada was up on 4-2 against the Russians when a bench-clearing brawl broke out. The only way to stop the madness was to literally turn off the lights. The game was cancelled and both teams were disqualified from the competition.
In this year’s tourney, Flames fans will likely be watching Team Switzerland closer than ever with first-round draft pick and potential franchise player Sven Bärtschi in the lineup.
And fans hope Bärtschi the world juniors will only make him a better player. “When you are at that age and get a chance to play against the best young people in the world, it helps.” Bouwmeester said. “It’s definitely a step up from your regular junior team competition, so it’s all good in that sense.”