However, it wasn’t hard to sense the pride and fulfillment Gabriel Szturc and his Czech teammates felt after earning the 2023 silver medal. It was Czechia’s first World Junior medal since 2005’s bronze in Grand Forks, North Dakota.
“It’s my last tournament of my junior international career,” said Szturc, a 19-year-old left wing from Cesky Tesin, after the final. “I'm very proud of this team, what we've done here, and how we finished this tournament. Second place hurts right now, but it's going to be an awesome feeling tomorrow.”
If there was one personal pain point for Szturc, it was ringing the puck off Canadian goalie Thomas Milic’s crossbar midway through the first period. Noted for his quick release, the smart, shifty Szturc wished he could have quieted the boisterous pro-Canada crowd at Scotiabank Centre.
“It was a little bit unlucky with that crossbar,” Szturc said. “I wasn’t very happy after it. Obviously it’s a final game and I hit a crossbar like that. I should have scored. The feeling would have been different. But it happened, and it is what it is.”
That said, he will have fond memories of how the Czechs pushed Canadian captain Shane Wright’s crew to the limit late in the third period. When Jiri Kulich and Jakub Kos scored 54 seconds apart to tie the game at 2-2, it felt like anything was possible.
“We were so fired up,” said Szturc. “We were believing in our plan and that we can tie the game. We scored our first goal and were like, ‘Yeah, let's do it. Let's start again and go for a gold.’ Unfortunately, we didn't get the gold medal, but we still have some medals. I would say it's a very big achievement for our hockey.”
Frankly, the 2023 World Juniors were also a very big achievement for the undrafted Szturc. He previously played for BK Mlada Boleslav before jumping to the Kelowna Rockets in 2021-22. He had 41 points in 67 games as a WHL rookie and is on pace to eclipse that this season.
Szturc is currently undrafted. Of course, in recent years undrafted Czechs – from forwards like Tomas Nosek and Radim Zohorna to defencemen like Michael Kempny and Jan Rutta – have made their mark in the NHL. But when the 2023 NHL Draft in Nashville (28 to 29 June) takes place, Szturc is optimistic that his Nova Scotia performance will have impressed the scouts enough for someone to take him.
“Hopefully I showed them what I can do and what my skills are,” Szturc said. “Hopefully they will notice me and something's gonna happen.”
There’s no question that his three Czech teammates who were named to the tournament media all-star team got noticed.
Tomas Suchanek put on a show with a 1.52 GAA and 93.4 save percentage. The 19-year-old member of the WHL’s Tri-City Americans even set a new World Junior goalie record with four assists. Szturc loved the way Suchanek persevered in the face of adversity, even when he got run over by Canada’s Caidan Bankier in the gold medal game.
“Oh my God, I'm so happy to have him on our team!” Szturc said. “He was our rock for the whole tournament. He showed that today as well, because the Canadian guy just ran into him and he was hurt a lot. But he still got up and continued to work hard and save our game.”
Likewise, Szturc cherishes the way Kulich and defenceman David Jiricek elevated their play in the elimination games.
“They're absolutely rocks in our team. You’ve seen David Jiricek tie the game against Sweden and then Jiri Kulich scored the OT winner to send us to the gold medal game. It was crazy how good they are. Hopefully they will continue to do hard work and they will play in the NHL because they're very good players. It was an honour to play with them.”
In terms of opponents, Szturc will never forget the opportunity to go head-to-head with Canada’s Connor Bedard, who could be mentioned in the same breath as Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid in a few years.
“He’s an unreal player. I've never seen someone like that. He obviously is two years younger than me. You think, ‘Wow, this guy is so skilled.’ Every time he’s got the puck, he will create a scoring chance. I think he was the real MVP for Canada and he got the award as well.”
Despite keeping Bedard pointless in the gold medal game, the Czechs fell a little bit short. But right now, what they accomplished has inspired more optimism around their U20 development program than anything since the glory days at the turn of the millennium.
Even though Gabriel Szturc won’t be back for the 2024 IIHF World Junior Championship in Gothenburg, Sweden, he can take pride in knowing that he did his part to help Czech hockey come back strong. And his own journey is just getting started.