International Intrigue

NHL Locker Rooms Will Be Tuned In Once The Puck Drops On This Year’s World Junior Tournament
By: 
Jason Kates

Four hours of daylight, a shortage of familiar food and a loss in the bronze-medal game versus archrival Canada.

 

That was Washington Capitals defenseman Brooks Orpik’s experience when he traveled to Skelleftea, Sweden to compete in the 2000 IIHF World Junior Championship.

 

This year, things will be a little different for the players who wear the red, white and blue when they face off the world’s best at this year’s international event, which kicks on Dec. 26 at the Key Bank Center in Buffalo, N.Y.

 

With the competition returning to the shores of Lake Erie for the first time since 2011, the United States will look to accomplish two feats it’s never done: win back-to-back gold medals and thrill its fans with victory on home soil.

 

Hosting an event of this prominence is likely to increase awareness of hockey across America, with the top prospects under the age of 20 from around the globe taking center stage. Since its inception in 1977, the World Juniors has served as a launching pad for NHL careers among players from around the world.

 

Capitals blue liner Matt Niskanen, who participated in the tournament in 2006, is excited to see the attention this year’s competition receives. 

 

“That’s a good thing for that area,” said the Virginia, Minn., native. “The tournament gets more coverage now too on NHL Network and whatnot, it gets more publicity now than it has 10-15 years ago.

 

“I would imagine that’s a big thing for Buffalo area hockey if you’re a young person in that area,” he added. “You’re not that far removed, those kids were in Midget or Bantam not that long ago, so you get to see the best the country has to offer for that age group.”

 

Adding to the excitement that is already taking over the city will be the preliminary round contest between the U.S. and Canada, which will take place outdoors at New Era Field on Dec. 29.  

 

The first of its kind for a top-level IIHF competition, the outdoor game is something Orpik highlighted as the main attraction.

 

“Obviously Buffalo, with its proximity to Canada, is a good draw for fans. This year’s obviously a little different because they have the outdoor game at the football stadium,” said Orpik, who was born in San Francisco but grew up in the Buffalo suburb of Amherst. 

 

“That’ll be super cool for those kids to get to play in, especially with it being U.S. and Canada. Those games are always super intense as it is, it’ll be even cooler to play it outdoors.”

 

As with any international competition, NHL locker rooms are filled with a bit of trash talk and a few friendly wagers thrown in for good measure. 

 

As one of the few American players on the Colorado Avalanche roster, veteran defenseman Erik Johnson has taken a little “friendly ribbing” from teammates when their respective countries face off against each other. But just as he does on the ice, Johnson, an alumnus of USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program, can give as good as he gets.

 

“There’s a little bit, not a ton,” Johnson said of the in-house wagers. “Maybe put a dinner on it or something like that. We definitely keep tabs and pay attention. I’m one of the lone Americans on the team, so I’m kind of on an island there, but it’s still fun regardless.” 

 

“There’s always dinners put on it, like dinner of choice or whatever restaurant you choose,” added Orpik.

 

With this year’s competition taking place so close to home and with a time zone more conducive with watching games in prime time, NHL locker rooms are sure to be tuned in to all the action.

 

“I remember when I was in Pittsburgh, the Canadian guys always got into the Canada and U.S. game,” Orpik said. “It’s always fun to watch with the guys. We’re always at the rink, anyways, so we always have the games on.”

 

By Jason Kates

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