It’s the most wonderful time of the year — the World Juniors!
Despite 2020 being a year unlike any other, the hockey world’s annual Christmastime tradition will still be going down. Puck drops tomorrow on Christmas Day and Team Canada will kick things off a little while later on Boxing Day.
To get into the spirit of the tournament, let’s take a look back at some memorable performances from familiar faces of the past…
The Great One’s trophy case is jammed with an incredible list of accomplishments. Wayne Gretzky won the Stanley Cup four times, the Art Ross Trophy 10 times, the Hart Trophy nine times, and the Conn Smythe Trophy twice.
But Gretzky didn’t have the same level of success in international play that he did at the NHL level. He won the Canada Cup three times, but never won gold at the Olympics, the World Hockey Championships, or the World Juniors.
Gretzky’s only go at the World Juniors came in 1977-78 when he was a member of the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds. Canada would breeze through the group stage but got dropped in the semi-final by the eventual winners, the Soviet Union. They would end up earning bronze by beating Czechoslovakia.
A 16-year-old Gretzky led the tournament with 17 points in six games and was named Top Forward. He didn’t play at the World Juniors the following season because he made the transition to professional hockey by joining the WHA.
Jari Kurri and Reijo Ruotsalainen
A couple of years later, it was a pair of Finns who would shine at the tournament.
Jari Kurri scored four goals and 11 points over five games, good for a tie with Soviet Vladimir Krutov for the tournament scoring lead. Amazingly, Kurri wasn’t named to the tournament All-Star team, which featured forwards Krutov, Igor Larionov, and Hakan Loob.
His teammate, Reijo Ruotsalainen, was the Finn who really made a name for himself that year. Ruotsalainen put up seven points in five games and earned himself the honour of Top Defenceman at the tournament.
A few months later, the Oilers drafted Kurri with the No. 69 pick at the 1980 NHL draft and he went on to become a key cog in the team’s dynasty. Ruotsalainen was drafted No. 119 overall by the Rangers but got traded to the Oilers in 1986 and won two Stanley Cups with the team.
Sticking with Finland, we have Esa Tikkanen, a pesky fan favourite during the dynasty days and a four-time Stanley Cup winner with the Oilers.
Before Tikkanen made a name for himself in Edmonton, he was a legend in Finland. He played in three tournaments for Finland, helping the country win a silver medal in 1984. Tikkanen is Finland’s all-time scoring leader at the WJC with 36 points over 21 games.
Martin Rucinsky and Doug Weight
At the 1991 tournament, Martin Rucinsky put together an excellent showing for Czechoslovakia, posting nine goals and 14 points over seven games in an effort that helped his country earn a bronze medal. The Oilers would end up selecting Rucinsky with the No. 20 overall pick in the draft a few months later, though he only played two games for the club.
As good as Rucinsky was in that tournament, he was overshadowed by a handful of future superstars. Soon-to-be No. 1 overall pick Eric Lindros helped Canada win gold, Pavel Bure led the tournament with an astonishing 12 goals, and American Doug Weight was the scoring leader with 19 points.
Weight, of course, would eventually go on to have a great career for the Oilers in the 90s after being acquired via trade from New York.
Here’s a wild story.
In 1993, David Vyborny went into the tournament representing Czechoslovakia but ended up winning bronze for the Czech and Slovak Republics. On Jan. 1, 1993, right in the middle of the tournament, Czechoslovakia dissolved, leaving Czechia and Slovakia as two different countries.
Vyborny finished third in tournament scoring with 15 points in seven games. He was selected by the Oilers with the No. 33 pick at the 1993 draft but never played a game for the team.
This was the year that Peter Forsberg put up an outrageous 31 points at the tournament, a performance that will likely never be topped.
Here’s where the story of Captain Canada begins.
The Oilers selected Ryan Smyth with the No. 6 overall pick in the 1994 draft. A few months later, he was a member of a loaded Team Canada squad. Smyth posted seven points in seven games for Canada helping the team breeze its way to a 7-0 record and gold medal win. Beyond Smyth, that team featured Alex Daigle, Eric Daze, Jason Allison, Bryan McCabe, and multiple other successful NHLers.
Smyth owns a gold medal from the WJC, the Olympics, the World Cup of Hockey, and the World Hockey Championships.
Jani Rita and Ales Hemsky
Jani Rita, the Oilers’ No. 13 pick in the 1999 draft, represented Finland three times at the World Juniors. The first couple of times weren’t memorable, but Rita broke out in 2001 with a tournament-leading eight goals in seven games. Finland would earn silver after losing to the Czech Republic in the gold medal game.
The following year, it was another Oilers’ first-round draft pick who broke out at the tournament, though Ales Hemsky would go on to have a much better NHL career than Rita did. Hemsky would score nine points in seven games for the Czech Republic, though they didn’t end up winning a medal.
In my mind, Jordan Eberle is Canada’s World Juniors GOAT.
Eberle sits second all-time in scoring for Canada at the WJC with 26 points over 12 games, behind only Eric Lindros, who scored 31 points over 21 games in three tournaments.
The back-to-back 13-point showings from Eberle is one thing, but what really puts him over the top is the clutch gene. In 2009, Eberle scored buried a game-tying goal against Russia in the dying seconds of the semi-finals before eventually scoring the game-winner in the shootout.
Eberle’s last-second score is one of the most iconic goals in Hockey Canada history (though Pierre McGuire did his best to derail it).
Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins
With the Oilers tanking during the 2009-10 season, some of the only hockey worth watching for fans around these parts was the World Juniors. The 2010 WJC featured top prospects Jordan Eberle and Magnus Paajarvi along with soon-to-be No. 1 overall pick, Taylor Hall.
Hall finished that tournament third in scoring with six goals and 12 points over six games. That showing was key in getting the Fall For Hall train going. Canada would end up losing in the gold medal game to the United States that year in overtime.
A few years later, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins finally got a chance to shine at the WJC. With the NHL going through a lockout, RNH captained Team Canada with an incredible individual performance, scoring 15 points over six games. That wasn’t far off from Gretzky’s 17 points in six games, though, of course, RNH was much older.
Unfortunately, Canada was disappointing otherwise that year, as the team lost to Nail Yakupov’s Russian squad in the bronze medal game.
Another performance from the Oil Change era that should be mentioned is Oscar Klefbom’s showing at the 2012 tournament. Though Klefbom didn’t have a huge tournament offensively (two points in six games), the Oilers No. 19 overall pick from the previous year’s draft was key in Sweden’s gold medal win and earned himself a nod on the tournament All-Star team.
Connor McDavid and Darnell Nurse
Connor McDavid made his WJC debut in 2014 as far-and-away the youngest player on Team Canada. The following year, McDavid broke out with a huge showing in his pre-draft season, scoring 11 points in seven games, good for a tie for the tournament lead.
Also on that gold medal-winning Team Canada squad was the Oilers’ 2014 first-round pick, Darnell Nurse. Though he only scored one point, Nurse was Canada’s top shutdown defenceman and earned Player of the Game honours in the gold medal win over Russia.
Given the difficult time he’s had figuring things out at the NHL level, it’s easy to forget just how hyped Jesse Puljujarvi was heading into the 2016 draft.
After putting up no points in five games as a 16-year-old at the 2015 tournament, Puljujarvi exploded the following year on a loaded Finland squad. That team won gold with names like Patrik Laine, Sebastian Aho, and Mikko Rantanen, but it was Puljujarvi who really stole the show.
Puljujarvi scored five goals and 17 points over seven games, earning himself tournament MVP, a wildly impressive feat for a 17-year-old. Let’s hope that the young Finn ultimately follows the path of names like Kurri or Tikkanen rather than Rita.
Philip Broberg? Dylan Holloway?
At this year’s tournament, Oilers fans will get to watch 2020 first-round pick Dylan Holloway play a key two-way role for Team Canada while 2019 first-round pick Philip Broberg captains Team Sweden. Broberg won bronze in 2020 and will be looking for gold this time around.