Consider for a moment, that you are under the age of 20 and you have already invested close to 15 years in achieving a goal that you are likely still two to four years from attaining, if at all. That goal? To play in the NHL. Along the way, you will play for a number of teams and have to decide if you will go the collegiate or the major juniors route, all in your quest. Now imagine that you are one of the most skilled players in your position in your country and you have been selected to compete for one of only 23 spots.
Such commitment to their craft is what is found in the current 28 players suiting up each day this week at Agganis Arena on the Boston University campus at the USA Hockey World Junior Championship camp. They have spent hours slapping pucks at targets and goals. They have been skating since they could walk. They watch what they eat—many having body fat percentages in the single digits. Some have chosen the collegiate road while others have moved to Canada to play major juniors. One of them even chose to travel to Switzerland to play professionally.
Talking with these players you can see the focus in their eyes. Watching them on the ice, you can see the passion that drives them to succeed on each shift, with each pass or block. And remember they aren’t even old enough to legally drink.
“I think any time you get to come to a camp like this where you’re playing with the best players in the country, for our country, under 20, you know, I think you take a lot out of it, especially playing every day and being around guys like that,” shared forward Chad Krys. “You can learn from everybody, whether it’s on the ice, off the ice, take stuff from that so I think there’s a lot of things you can take out of it.”
His sentiments are echoed by the others vying for one of those final roster spots. Each has been selected from the hundreds of hockey players across North America to represent the United States in the 2016 IIHF World Junior Championship. But these players aren’t cocky or certain of their place on the team.
“It’s a huge honor. Once I got the text from Mr. Johannson [GM Jim Johannson], you know, there was a little bit of a sigh of relief,” said Matthew Tkachuk. “I was stressing over it a little bit, but I feel like I did a good job the first half of the year to deserve to be here and as of right now I just have to keep working and hopefully I can make this team.”
Pre-tournament camp is approximately two weeks, the first week this year taking place in Boston and then, after the first cuts have been made, the remaining week will be in Finland. The final roster must be set by December 25 with the first of the round-robin games beginning on December 26. These players often sacrifice holidays with extended family to showcase their talents while representing their country. And there is not a lot of time to get chemistry with fellow players before they must compete in the quest to bring home a medal.
And while these players are all skilled in one or more ways, they also have a lot of respect for their fellow players.
“I’m excited. Getting to play with Tkachuk and [Auston] Matthews, two unbelievable players,” shared Alex DeBrincat on his current line mates in camp.
For some of these players, like Matthews, they experienced this camp and playing last year in this event. It doesn’t necessarily guarantee them a bye onto the team, but it does give them a little less apprehension because they already know what to expect in regard to the camp.
For Tkachuk, this is his first year, but he’s been fortunate to be sharing a room with Matthews, so he’s been asking him some questions.
“I’ve been peppering [Matthews’] brain a little bit. I’m rooming with him here in Boston. Ask him all the little stuff, like what to expect in practice; what he thinks the coaches will bring,” Tkachuk explained. “You know, just how hard it is if you make the team, the competition. And so far he’s giving me a lot of positive feedback and we’re going to keep talking about it and hopefully we can be teammates together.”
Most situations where you are in competition for a position—regardless of what the job is—having help from someone else who also wants that position is not the norm. Hockey players are unique in this regard. There is a camaraderie off the ice that sits on the bench like a duster while they forecheck, backcheck, block shots, and get in each other’s faces on the ice. Once they are off the ice again that is forgotten—they are a team.
Some of these hardworking players will experience disappointment after leaving it all out on the ice, getting cut from the roster. However, after the initial sting diminishes they will refocus on improving in those areas that the coaches felt they were lacking and will once again put their sights on that ultimate goal. Factoring in their youth, this is actually astounding as there are many adults who, when passed over for a promotion, will sulk or hold grudges for months if not years, making excuses and blaming others.
Many of these players have already been selected in a recent NHL Draft, though this does not guarantee they will ever actually play at that level. There are also a few who will be eligible in this summer’s draft and playing in the World Junior Championship is just another way for them to show the scouts what they can do before that important weekend in June arrives.
Regardless of where they are along their precarious route to the NHL, their commitment, focus and drive are to be admired. Their skills are something that can cause uncontrollable gasps of awe when watching them. And best of all, these players come from all over the United States, proving how far hockey in this country has come—no longer relegated to those northern, snowy states.