Every NHL dressing room has a treasure trove of World Junior memories. With their multinational roster, the Winnipeg Jets are no exception.
Talking to them provides a snapshot of how this tournament nurtures U20 stars who go on to NHL, Olympic, and World Championship success.
One year ago, Jacob Trouba of the United States was preparing to suit up for his country at the World Juniors in Ufa, Russia. It panned out perfectly for this product of the U.S. National Team Development Program and the University of Michigan.
Trouba led all blueliners in tournament scoring with nine points. The Rochester, Michigan native was named Best Defenceman and a tournament all-star as the Americans marched to their second gold in the last four years.
“Every country had their best players,” Trouba recalled of the event played during the last NHL lockout. “Nobody really gave us a shot going into it, but I think we had a good group of guys who believed in each other, and I think that showed.”
As the youngest player on Winnipeg’s 2013/2014 roster, the 19-year-old remains tight with World Junior teammates such as Riley Barber, Ryan Hartman, and Jon Gillies. Those returning players will attempt to defend the U.S.’s championship title in Malmö, Sweden between December 26 and January 5.
“I talk to them all the time still,” Trouba said. “I’ve got a lot of good buddies I played with on those teams.”
How does he like the Americans’ chances of repeating?
“You’ve always got to believe, but we always come in as an underdog in that tournament,” Trouba said. “The last five or seven years, we’ve done pretty well.”
It’s been nearly 16 years since Finland last won the World Juniors. The Jets’ oldest player, 35-year-old Olli Jokinen, filled a crucial role on that host team, which thrillingly defeated neighbouring Russia 2-1 on Niklas Hagman’s overtime goal in Helsinki.
“We had a team that had many big names playing in front of the home crowd, and we had a pretty tight group,” Jokinen said. “We’d played U16, U17, and U18 on the national team. That was our final year to play together as the junior national team. It was great.”
Besides Jokinen and Hagman, other notable talents included future Olympians like goalie Niklas Bäckström and forward Niko Kapanen.
For Jokinen, team success trumped any boost to his future pro career that leading the tournament in points (10) and earning Best Forward and tournament all-star honours might have provided.
“It was more about the win,” the big Kuopio-born centre said. “Any other factors didn’t really matter. I was already drafted. I’d played in the NHL that year. It wasn’t about points. We beat Russia in overtime, and that’s the only memory you need.”
Forward Michael Frolik’s best World Junior memory comes from 2005 when his Czech team captured the bronze medal in Grand Forks, North Dakota. That was the last time the Czech Republic medalled at the World Juniors.
“That was a great experience,” said Frolik. “I played with great players, and everyone tries to do their best. There is a lot of scouting and a lot of people watching it. I think it’s important for every country, and it’s always nice when you can represent your country. I always enjoyed it.”
Now 25, this Kladno native remarkably played in four straight World Juniors from 2005 to 2008. That string has only been matched by a few other future NHLers, like Germany’s Jochen Hecht and Finland’s Reijo Ruotsalainen.
Frolik, drafted 10th overall by the Florida Panthers in 2006, won a Stanley Cup last season with the Chicago Blackhawks. He’d love to see his native country win something in Malmö.
“They haven’t been close to a medal for the last few years,” he said. “I think hopefully we have some young kids coming up. Maybe we will do better this year.”
Nowadays, the World Juniors command the attention of the entire hockey world over the Christmas holidays, and Frolik knows there’s going to be chatter about it in the Jets dressing room.
“We have a lot of Canadians, and Canadians love the tournament,” Frolik said. “They pay a lot of attention to it. I’m sure some jokes will go around, and hopefully when the Czechs match up against Canada, they’ll do well and beat them.”
The gold medal is up for grabs, but one thing is certain. The U20 stars following in the footsteps of Trouba, Jokinen, and Frolik this year are in for an unforgettable experience.