Having experienced disappointment at the last two IIHF World Junior Championships, Jacob de la Rose and Robert Hägg aren’t interested in looking for silver linings. In fact, anything silver – lined or otherwise – they could just as much do without.
Twice now, Sweden won its first six games only to fall short at the end. In 2013, it was a 3-1 setback to the United States in the gold medal game. And last year, at home in Malmo, the team lost a heartbreaker, 3-2, in overtime to rival Finland.
“It’s so terrible to lose two final games in a row,” says Hägg. “When you’re sitting there after the game, it’s so terrible. I don’t wish any guy in the world to have that feeling.”
This year’s event is still more than four months away, but the groundwork for getting over the hump was put in motion this week at USA Hockey’s National Junior Evaluation Camp. Forward de la Rose was given the captain’s ‘C’; Hägg, a defenceman, was named an alternate captain.
While once they were the young players who quietly went about their jobs on the ice, the two are now the leaders of a Swedish squad looking to win its country’s third World Junior gold.
In 2013, de la Rose was his team’s youngest player and Hägg, only three months older, was a last-minute injury replacement, and neither saw significant ice time. A year later they took on increased minutes and responsibilities.
“I got a lot of trust from the coaches and played big minutes against the top lines from other teams,” says Hägg. “Now I know what I need to get better on to be my best. I hope I can bring that with me to this (year’s) tournament.”
“The first year I was the youngest guy, but I feel like I play the same game – power game and be a power forward,” says de la Rose. “I try to be the hardest-working guy. I’m more of a top-line guy now, but I’m still going to give energy to the team and with my experience from other World Juniors I got to show the way out there.”
Neither proclaims to be a vocal leader; rather, they prefer to show by example. It’s a mentality that was instilled in de la Rose by his dad, Anders, a former youth hockey coach in Sweden.
“What he told me then for all sports [I played] is the main thing for me now and what I expect of all my teammates and that is to give 100 per cent,” he says. “It doesn’t work all the time with your skills, but you can always give heart.”
Hägg and de la Rose have long earned respect in Sweden, as this is not the first time either has been given a letter to wear for his country. Most recently they led the team that competed at the 2013 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship, a roster that included 13 potential teammates come December, but only five of whom have World Juniors experience.
“I just try to play my game and do what I’m good at and help the new guys,” says Hägg, when asked how he sees himself as a leader to players who haven’t played at his stage before. “I just talk to them about how they can do things better on and off the ice, and just be a good guy.”
It’s a position each found himself in not too long ago. For instance, de la Rose had friend Filip Forsberg, the captain the past two years, to look up to. “I don’t think I try to copy him; I’m leader in my own way. I try to be myself.”
What should also help is that both will spend this season in North America. A 2013 second-round pick of the Montreal Canadiens, de la Rose will be with the team’s AHL affiliate, the Hamilton Bulldogs. Hagg was drafted seven slots later that same year, by the Flyers, and will play either in Philadelphia or with the AHL’s Leigh Valley Phantoms. Getting used to the nuances of the smaller ice, not to mention Canadian and American culture, means fewer adjustments come December, says Hägg.
After all, they have a mighty expectation of themselves.
“Gold medal,” says Häag smiling. “Always go for the gold. Why else play?”