Cameron Hebig and Wyatt Sloboshan seem to be working their way through Hockey Canada’s Program of Excellence in reverse. After all, they’ve already been on the ice at the IIHF World Junior Championship, and now they’re on to the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge.
Hebig and Sloboshan, then both 12 years old, got the experience of a lifetime on Jan. 5, 2010 when they had the opportunity to carry the U.S. and Canadian flags, respectively, on the ice prior to the 2010 IIHF World Junior Championship gold medal game in Saskatoon, Sask.
It was a mix of luck and knowing the right people that enabled the duo to rub shoulders with players who today are some of the NHL’s top young stars – names like Hall, Eberle, Pietrangelo, Carlson, Stepan and Gardiner.
“My mother’s friend was a volunteer for the tournament and she was the one who ran the ceremonies. She asked my mom if we were interested to go to the gold medal game,” Sloboshan says of how the opportunity arose.
Needing a second flagbearer, Sloboshan turned to his long-time friend Hebig, who quickly jumped at the chance.
“As soon as Wyatt asked me to do it with him I was all in,” he says. “I was obviously nervous to see those junior guys up close, but it was a very cool experience.”
Fast forward four years, and Hebig and Sloboshan are right where Hall, Eberle and Pietrangelo have been – wearing the Team Canada jersey in international competition, representing West at the under-17 tournament in Cape Breton, N.S.
When asked to talk about their experience as flag bearers, both players’ eyes light up. Sloboshan remembers being surprised at how fast they were going. “The wind was blowing through our flags and just being out there on the same ice as them was an amazing feeling.”
Hebig chuckles when he thinks about his first thoughts: “I was scared to get out there and fall in front of such a big crowd!” He says it was an indescribable feeling to hear the crowd’s roar as the Canadian team took to the ice.
“Seeing so many guys that we look up to today from that close was awesome,” Hebig says. “They were just so well prepared and focused. They took their work very seriously and I think that’s why they’re such great players today, but also such great people too.”
While both remember taking pride in seeing fellow Saskatoonian Brayden Schenn hit the ice, Sloboshan has special memories of another Canadian player.
“When he came onto the ice, Taylor Hall gave me a pat on my shin pads. I turned to Cameron and we both smiled,” Sloboshan says. “I had heard Hall’s name so many times and the fact that he was projected to go first overall in the upcoming NHL draft was very cool.”
But it wasn’t just the players that Hebig and Sloboshan got to rub shoulders with. One of the first people to greet them? Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall, who posed for a photos before the flag bearers were whisked away to prepare for their duties.
“After the pictures they had us prepare for our laps.” Hebig recalls. “Once those were done, we got changed really fast and headed for the stands. They gave us great seats, in the first rows of one of the rink’s corners. I remember the game being so intense.”
After the game, a 6-5 U.S. overtime win that ended Canada’s run of five consecutive gold medals at the World Juniors, Hebig and Sloboshan had the opportunity to go into the American dressing room for a meet and greet with the U.S. players, where they received autographed sticks and shook a few hands.
“We were a little disappointed that we couldn’t meet the Canadian team,” Sloboshan says, “but it’s normal considering they had just lost.”
Today, as he begins a Team Canada journey of his own, Hebig still keeps fond memories of his time in the World Junior spotlight. “It was a great experience and I’m so glad that [Wyatt] asked me to do it with him.”