The just-concluded Sport Chek World Junior Showcase (30 July to August 4) in Kamloops, Canada featured the four nations that have won the last seven U20 gold medals: Sweden (2012), the United States (2013, 2017), Finland (2014, 2016), and Canada (2015, 2018).
In this 11-game exhibition tournament at the Sandman Centre, the North American sides, blessed with superior depth, used split squads during the first two days of friendlies so they could evaluate as many prospects as possible for the 2019 IIHF World Junior Championship in Vancouver and Victoria (26 December to 5 January).
When the U.S. and Canada iced their unified rosters for the last three days, the Canadians won three straight games, 4-3 over Finland in overtime, 4-1 over Sweden, and 6-5 over the Americans.
Of course, this is summer hockey. It’s not about winning a trophy, but building early team chemistry and giving bubble players a chance to prove themselves. The Nordic countries left some noteworthy names at home, ranging from Finland’s Jesper Kotkaniemi and Kristian Vesalainen to Sweden’s Rasmus Sandin and Olof Lindbom.
The wrestling matches that erupted at the final buzzer in the U.S.-Canada game were a milder version of what Canadian head coach Tim Hunter has witnessed many times before. The 57-year-old is a hard-nosed ex-NHLer (3,146 career PIM) who won the 1989 Stanley Cup with the Calgary Flames. He served as an assistant coach with the last two World Junior teams, which lost to the Americans in a heartbreaking gold-medal shootout in 2017 and edged Sweden for the title in 2018.
“They’re really going to impress me by playing the right way,” said Hunter. “If you play the right way, that’s the process, the end result will be what we get, and that’s a win.”
There were some standout individual performances. Watching 17-year-old U.S. centre Jack Hughes and defenceman Quinn Hughes, his older brother, team up on the power play was a treat. Quinn paced the Americans with six points, including a dazzling three-assist outing in a 5-4 overtime win over Sweden.
Jack, who is the consensus top prospect for the 2019 NHL Draft, never looked out of place, and few would be surprised if this USA Hockey National Team Development Program star led the World Juniors in scoring. The nifty pivot potted a tournament-high 12 points and was named MVP when the U.S. claimed the silver medal at the U18 World Championship in Russia in April.
Asked what makes the Hughes brothers special, U.S. coach Mike Hastings said: “I’d say chemistry, ability, their passion for the game. They don’t have a lot of fear in their game. They don’t mind giving it up and getting it back. I think they play with pace. They’re good hockey players.”
Returning forward Brady Tkachuk showed a blend of high-end skill and agitating physical play reminiscent of his father Keith Tkachuk and his older brother Matthew Tkachuk. Tkachuk, who had nine points in seven games for last year’s bronze-medal U.S. team, was vocal and found ways to stir the pot, even bouncing the puck off the scoreboard once.
Standout Canadian 18-year-olds included defenceman Noah Dobson and centre Ty Dellandrea. Both epitomized the hard-working, two-way mindset that Hunter demands. Dobson, who won the 2018 Memorial Cup with the QMJHL’s Acadie-Bathurst Titan, played a mature game and got two goals in the win over Sweden. Dellandrea, who was a go-to guy for coach Don Hay at the U18 in Russia, picked up a goal and an assist in the win over the U.S., shining alongside linemates Jack Studnicka and Jaret Anderson-Dolan.
Finnish coach Jussi Ahokas, meanwhile, will be pleased if the chemistry between World Junior Showcase captain Aarne Talvitie and speedy forward Rasmus Kupari persists. Talvitie scored four goals and Kupari had four assists in Kamloops. Some undrafted 19-year-old Swedes made their presence felt, like forward Rickard Hugg, who showed off his hands with two quick goals against the Americans, and forward Marcus Sylvegard, who didn’t hesitate to throw his weight around.
There seems to be a synergy between the site selection for the IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship and the World Junior Showcase. Kamloops also hosted the Women’s Worlds in 2016, while Plymouth, Michigan hosted both the women’s tournament and the Showcase in 2017.
Kamloops, a scenic city in British Columbia’s Interior, co-hosted the 2006 World Juniors with Vancouver and Kelowna. It provided great facilities both on and off the for the World Junior Showcase teams, despite daily temperatures that topped 40 Celsius. The Canadian team enjoyed go-kart racing at the nearby Sun Peaks Resort, home to 1968 Olympic giant slalom champion Nancy Greene, who lit the 2010 Olympic torch in Vancouver with Wayne Gretzky and other Canadian icons.
The home of the WHL’s Kamloops Blazers has burnished its tourism reputation with top-notch golfing and mountain biking, plus wineries like Monte Creek and Harper’s Trail and craft beer meccas like The Noble Pig and Iron Road Brewing. However, for the visiting U20 hockey stars, the focus was squarely on winning gold in Vancouver – and possibly using that as a springboard to Stanley Cup champagne and Olympic titles.
Especially for the host Canadians, who face more scrutiny and expectations than any other nation, the intensity is already ramping up. What would it mean to win the final at Rogers Arena?
“It would mean everything,” said Dellandrea. “To win gold anywhere in this tournament is spectacular, but to win it in Canada on home soil would be unbelievable.”