by Lucas Aykroyd – iihf.com
Steve McCarthy’s career is loaded with connections and parallels to the 2013 IIHF World Junior Championship in Russia.
That might initially seem like a surprising assertion about a 31-year-old Canadian defenceman who currently plays for the AHL’s Abbotsford Heat.
However, McCarthy’s second straight World Junior appearance in 2001 was in Russia – although it was in Moscow, rather than this year’s site, Ufa. That was also the last time Russia hosted the tournament.
Chosen 23rd overall in the 1999 NHL draft by the Chicago Blackhawks, McCarthy was named the 2001 team captain by coach Stan Butler. The Trail, B.C., native was expected to help Canada improve on its bronze medal-winning performance the year before (although ultimately the Canadians came third again).
That’s exactly the same position Team Canada’s in this year, having finished third behind Sweden and Russia on home ice in Calgary in 2012. And like Canada in 2000, the 2013 team is also expected to take gold after missing out on top spot for three straight years.
"With the team going there this year, they’ll have a great team like Canada always does," McCarthy told IIHF.com in a phone interview. "The ultimate is to win the gold medal, which hopefully they can do. But in terms of advice I’d give, the biggest thing is to just relax. You put enough pressure on yourself. Sometimes when you’re in the moment, you forget to enjoy it."
At times, the Canadians were a little bit intimidated by their surroundings in Russia, which McCarthy described as "completely different from what we’re used to". They didn’t venture far from their team hotel and the language barrier was challenging, just as it is for Russians in North America.
One of the toughest moments for McCarthy and his teammates was losing a 3-1 round-robin tilt to the host Russians. Their frustration was compounded by a 17-year-old Ilya Kovalchuk’s decision to pump his fist demonstratively before potting the final empty-net goal.
Does that memory still infuriate the Heat assistant captain today?
"No, not anymore," McCarthy said. "I remember when I went to the Atlanta Thrashers, I talked to Kovy about that. He was a young kid at the time. He was just pretty excited playing in Russia. Personally, it’s obviously something you don’t want to see, but after getting to know Kovy a bit, that’s just how he is. He’s a good person and a good teammate. I learned to let that go. But it was a tough pill to swallow in the heat of the moment, for sure."
It wasn’t as if McCarthy was surrounded by sub-par teammates at that 2001 tournament. For example, Dany Heatley, a 2010 Olympic gold medallist who’s now Canada’s all-time leading scorer internationally, and Jay Bouwmeester, possibly the NHL’s best skater and a two-time world champion (2003, 2004), were part of the mix. To name a few others, Brad Boyes, Mike Cammalleri, Nick Schultz and Dan Hamhuis were also destined for NHL success and IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship stardom.
But the Canadians just couldn’t solve a physical Finnish squad that featured tournament all-stars in goalie Ari Ahonen, defenceman Tuukka Mäntylä and winger Jani Rita. The Finns tied them 2-2 in the round-robin and prevailed 5-2 in the semifinals.
"I remember after we lost and were unable to compete for the gold medal," McCarthy said. "Our coaches came in and said: ‘Look, you’re playing for the bronze medal. I know it seems detrimental now, but when you look back later, if you can win a bronze medal, you’ll be proud of it.’ They were exactly right."
Raffi Torres scored on Sweden’s Henrik Lundvqist in overtime to lift Canada to a 2-1 win in the 2001 bronze medal game.
The experience also gave McCarthy some perspective on the value that players under 18 can bring. In 2001, both Bouwmeester and future Ottawa Senators star Jason Spezza were participating in their second tournament at age 17.
What McCarthy witnessed made him optimistic that this year, Halifax Mooseheads teammates Nathan MacKinnon and Jonathan Drouin – both 17 – can get the job done against players a year or two older.
"With the older players Canada’s using this year, like Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, they’ll make sure [MacKinnon and Drouin] are integrated into the team," McCarthy said. "You’ll never know that they’re 17-year-olds. That’s the great thing about Team Canada – all the team-building exercises and how fast you come together. Those kids might be a little bit nervous, but after a day or so, they’re going to realize that they’re welcome with open arms."
After his World Junior days ended, McCarthy racked up 302 NHL games with the Blackhawks, Vancouver Canucks and Atlanta Thrashers. Yet while he loved appearing in his first NHL game against San Jose, and scoring his first NHL goal in front of family and friends in Vancouver, playing in the World Juniors still remained a career highlight. "It’s something I’ll always remember and be proud of," McCarthy said. He still hangs out with U20 teammate and fellow British Columbia native Barret Jackman in the summer to this day.
And McCarthy’s involvement with Russia wasn’t over. After coming off a tough third season with Atlanta, the veteran signed with the KHL’s Salavat Yulayev Ufa for 2008-09. What did he think of this year’s World Junior host city?
"I went, I gave it a shot, and I had a good experience," McCarthy said. "Unfortunately I got hurt and it was cut short. But for the young players going to this year’s World Juniors, it’s a nice little place. The people are very nice and you’re going to get treated well. The Ufa Arena is a great building. It’s a hockey town and the rink will be full. I have nothing but great things to say about the Russian people and the way I was treated in Ufa. The players made me feel welcome too."
Two well-known ex-NHLers helped McCarthy adjust to the overseas lifestyle during his 18-game stint.
"I had a chance to live with Alexander Radulov in a two-bedroom apartment," said McCarthy. "He’d been in Nashville, so he spoke English and he took care of me. Then you had an older guy in Oleg Tverdovsky, who played a lot of years in the NHL, and I could lean on him over there. They’d help me with going to restaurants and stores, stuff like that."
McCarthy, who subsequently spent a season with the Finnish SM-liiga’s TPS Turku (2010-11) and won a championship with the Swiss NLA’s ZSC Lions (2011-12), has an interesting perspective on the styles of top European leagues.
"I think the fastest league would probably be the Swiss league," he said. "Especially on the big ice, all three leagues are fast, but I’d say Switzerland was the fastest. In Russia, it’s similar, but there are a few older players, guys who have played in the NHL and have more experience. There may be more control to the game. In Finland, it’s very similar to North America. Maybe a little faster than the AHL, but pretty close. The Finns have a physical league – maybe even more physical than over here at times."
With just two seconds left, McCarthy scored the winning goal in Game 7 of the Swiss finals last year against SC Bern. It was an amazing triumph under his erstwhile Atlanta coach, Bob Hartley. But today, this World Junior veteran isn’t necessarily looking to grab the spotlight with the Heat, who look like bona fide contenders for the AHL’s Calder Cup.
"I enjoy being in Abbotsford," McCarthy said. "We have a great team with a lot of young players. If I can help them out a bit or answer their questions or set an example of how you should prepare yourself as a pro, I’d like to pass that along. I’m a little bit older than most of our players. I’d like to help them reach their dreams. That’s how I see my role."