At first glance, it’s a bit of a shock to see big Jim Sandlak wearing a Team USA jacket at various 2006 World Junior venues. Okay, maybe this doesn’t rank up there with Bryan Trottier donning American colours at the 1984 Canada Cup or Brett Hull’s “defection” to the USA starting at the 1986 IIHF World Championship.
But in 1986, Sandlak was named the top forward at the World Juniors in Hamilton, Ontario with five goals and seven assists for Team Canada, which claimed the silver medal. And in 1985, he was part of another Terry Simpson-coached squad that won gold in Helsinki, Finland. So what’s going on here?
As it turns out, Sandlak has a simple explanation: “I was invited by Hockey Canada to come out and be a host for one of the teams. Canada has its own regime and hosts, so I got to choose, and I picked the USA as the next available North American country.” His work involves everything from hotel arrangements and post-game interviews to equipment issues and Zamboni ice-cleaning requests.
The Kitchener-born 39-year-old cherishes his World Junior memories. “I have the 1985 gold medal hanging with my jersey, framed in my basement in London, Ontario,” says Sandlak. He easily rattles off the names of well-known NHLers who were WJC teammates of his: Brian Bradley, Adam Creighton, Stephane Richer, Claude Lemieux, Bob Bassen, Wendel Clark, Craig Billington.
Even though Canada lost 4-1 in the crucial game versus the Soviet Union in 1986, Sandlak made an indelible impression on viewers with a huge hit he laid on Alexander Semak, sending the Russian forward head-over-heels into the penalty box.
“That was before they invented the glass enclosing the penalty box,” says Sandlak. “People always remind me about that hit when they see me now.”
Projecting Sandlak as a dominant power forward, the Vancouver Canucks chose the man nicknamed “House” fourth overall in the 1985 NHL Entry Draft. The 6-4, 220-pound winger enjoyed a solid 549-game NHL career with Vancouver and Hartford, but admits that being brought into “The Show” at age 18 might have made his development curve more difficult, even though he was named to the 1986-87 NHL All-Rookie Team.
“Back then, it was a little different,” says Sandlak. “They wanted the 18-year-olds to get on board as soon as possible, whereas today teams bring them along. They either let them play junior till they’re 20, or they bring them up at 19 and put them on the farm team to let them mature down there. It’s a big transition. You’re only 18 or 19 years old, and all of a sudden you’re thrown into the fire with guys that are 25 to 35 years of age, and they have wives and children. But you’ve got to do what it takes to get there, and once you’re there, you’ve got to do what it takes to stay there.”
Sandlak may have played his best NHL hockey in the 1991-92 playoffs, where he had 10 points in 13 games for the Canucks and threw another memorable hit on another talented Russian forward, Winnipeg’s Evgeny Davydov.
Sandlak’s final pro season was 1997-98, as he played 21 games with Ingolstadt ERC of the German League. Today, he’s on the verge of starting up his own London-based construction company called Stone & Style Limited.
“Right now, there’s about four and a half feet of snow there, so it’s pretty hard to lay paving stones and build retaining walls with that kind of weather! But when I get back home, I’ll be enjoying my wife and children and gearing up for the spring.”
Watch for Sandlak and other great Team Canada alumni to make appearances at the RBC Fan Fest outside the Pacific Coliseum during the 2006 IIHF World Junior Championship.