RALEIGH, N.C. – As they piled into their dressing room following practice at PNC Arena on Monday, every Carolina Hurricanes player and coach glanced to see what was playing on the flat screen TV.
When they realized what it was, they stopped to watch it.
Not surprisingly, there was a hockey game playing, but it wasn’t any ordinary game that they took such interest in.
It was the day’s preliminary-round game from the 2014 IIHF U20 World Junior Championship (WJC) tournament between Canada and Slovakia which was going down to the wire.
The Slovakians were up on the Canadians 3-2 and a line of Team USA WJC veterans – Ron Hainsey, Tim Gleason, and Justin Faulk – looked on as Ryan Murphy, Tuomo Ruutu, Manny Malholtra, Nathan Gerbe and others filed into the room while the game continued.
All of them were former participants in the WJC.
For many current members of the Hurricanes organization, 33 to be exact, the WJC has been a part of their playing careers, so observing them watching intently on the game’s progress wasn’t surprising.
They all understand what the pressure and the excitement surrounding the event is all about because they’ve felt it.
“It’s similar to the Final Four in basketball down here,” Hurricanes head coach Kirk Muller said.
“In our country, it’s one of the biggest hockey events going. Everyone has a sense of attachment to it because it showcases Junior A players playing for their country, so you have the whole country behind them. And the competition level, it’s the first time for a lot of these guys to play at that level of hockey. Some play college, some play Junior, but such important games in high-level competition and the pressure of playing for your country – it’s an interesting dynamic for young kids to get thrown into.”
From the Hurricanes coaching staff, Muller and assistant coach John MacLean both played for Canada back in 1984 while assistant coaches Glen Wesley and Rod Brind’Amour played for their country on the 1987 and 1989 teams respectively.
“There were a lot of good hockey players,” Muller continued.
As the Carolina coach reminisced about his experience in the tournament, the volume coming from the main part of the room down the hall rose exponentially – Canada had tied and taken the lead 4-3 and had many in the room buzzing in conversation as a result.
The team’s current roster of players is dotted with many who not only played in the competition, but did so against one another in the same year.
During the 2001 tournament held in Moscow, Russia, forward Tuomo Ruutu played for Finland while defensemen Mike Komisarek, Ron Hainsey, Tim Gleason each played for the United States, and defenseman Jay Harrison played for Canada.
Not that they would ever think they would be on the same team in their professional careers, but for this group, they share a common experience that they agree is a special one.
“Anytime you have the chance to represent your country, playing the game you love, is pretty special,” Komisarek said.
“You’re playing not only with the best players in the country, but playing against the top players in the world. A lot of the guys that you’re playing with and against end up in the National Hockey League and you end up battling against these guys.”
As Komisarek continued, he pointed how he and Ruutu are now teammates in Carolina, but it was the Finn who got the best of him during their younger days facing one another in international play.
“I’ve had battles with Ruuts since I’ve been 16 or 17 years old. I remember him giving me my first concussion and I still bust his chops about it every time. You build these little rivalries and it’s been the first time I’ve been on the same side as him and I realized that these guys are not that bad.”
For Ruutu, the experience of winning one silver and two bronze medals while representing his country at three WJC’s brings back a lot of great memories.
“From what I can remember, it was close to being the most fun times in my whole career,” Ruutu said.
“It was so much fun – great memories from back then.”
For any player competing in the tournament like Hurricanes rookie Elias Lindholm (Sweden) and prospects Erik Karlsson (Sweden) and Jaccob Slavin (USA) are doing currently, Ruutu pointed out how important it was to be a part of it all, and what it meant in terms of preparing them as future professionals.
“When guys make it to the NHL, it gives you hope (you’ll make it). When I played there, I knew that a lot of good players played in the tournament. Pretty much all the good players in the NHL played in the tournament.”
As the business of the day in the dressing room wound down with various conversations and interviews concluded, so did the game on the screen as the large group of players that had gathered dispersed as Canada had completed its 5-3 comeback win.
“Bragging rights, bustin’ chops, rooting against each other’s countries,” Komisarek concluded.
“It’s pretty special and a pretty cool time of year.”
“It’s a fun tournament to watch because you see that there is so much emotion, so much passion,” he said.
“Guys are playing to win, not to lose. It’s fun to see the smiles on their faces and stuff like that. I think that’s why it’s so much fun to watch.”