It was – for players, fans, scouts, the Canadian Junior Hockey League and, really, everyone involved – the ultimate unknown.
Never before had the best players from Canada’s 10 Junior A leagues competed on the international stage, but that was about to change when Yorkton and Humboldt, Sask., hosted the 2006 World Junior A Challenge
There was, however, one thing the 44 players who represented Canada knew: it was their chance to wear the red and white of Team Canada and play for their country, and that was what mattered.
“As a Canadian kid growing up you always want to play professionally and play in the NHL,” says New York Rangers goaltender Cam Talbot, who starred for Canada East in Saskatchewan. “To represent your country is, I think, one step further, because not too many people get to wear the Maple Leaf on their chest.
“For me to be able to do that was quite an honour, and a time I’ll never forget.”
Unlike recent World Junior A Challenges, where Canadian players are invited to a selection camp to compete for a roster spot with Canada East and Canada West, the rosters were simply named ahead of the 2006 tournament; have a good start to the season, and you were in.
So for Talbot, then a netminder with the OJHL’s Hamilton Red Wings, there was no nerve-racking camp, no wait to see if he would be among the final 22. There was just a phone call.
“[Being selected to Canada East] was probably the biggest moment of my hockey career at the time,” he says. “My coach called to tell me, and at the end of the conversation he said the team wouldn’t be announced for three or four days so I couldn’t tell anybody. I was just like, ‘How am I not supposed to tell anyone the biggest news of my career?’”
Not everyone got the call though. At least, not at first.
For Riley Nash, a 17-year-old rookie with the BCHL’s Salmon Arm Silverbacks, there was an initial disappointment, followed by an extra few days of waiting.
But when Cody Danberg came up injured just before the start of the tournament, it was Nash who got the call to join the Canada West roster.
“We had a couple days off so I went home to see my parents, and got the call while I was there,” the Carolina Hurricanes forward says, joking about his role as the “fourth-line guy” trying to help his team out in whatever way possible.
“It was an honour even being close to being selected, so having the opportunity to fill in, wear the Maple Leaf and represent my country was obviously really cool.”
Both players admit going into the inaugural World Junior A Challenge with a little bit of trepidation as they prepared to face the unknown and take to the ice against Belarus, Germany, Russia and Slovakia, who joined the two Canadian entries in Saskatchewan.
“Once we got to the tournament there were a lot of quality hockey players,” Nash recalls. “I was 17 years old and I had never played against kids from Belarus or Russia or countries like that, so it was exciting to see their brand of hockey.”
And while it was a thrill to play against international competition for the first time, the stand-out memory for Talbot and Nash was the gold medal game; Canada East and Canada West both went undefeated on their way to an all-Canadian final.
The Canadian rosters were both led by first-round picks from the 2007 NHL Entry Draft – Kyle Turris (third overall to Phoenix) for West, and Brendan Smith (27th overall to Detroit) for East.
And today, just more than eight years later, seven players who went for gold on Nov. 12, 2006 have played in the NHL – Nash, Turris, Justin Fontaine and Evan Oberg from Canada West, and Talbot, Smith and Will Acton for Canada East.
Naturally, there were nerves on game day, mixed with feelings of excitement and pride. The nationally-televised game was the largest stage any of the players had experienced at that point in their careers; they were playing for their country, for a gold medal.
Early on it looked as if the game would be nothing more than a coronation for Canada West, which took a 4-0 lead before the midway mark of the second period on two goals from Jordie Johnston, and one each from Tyler McNeely and Casey Pierro- Zabotel.
But Canada East battled back thanks to a pair of David Kostuch goals and one from Jeff Terminesi to make it a one-goal game in the dying minutes, only to see their gold medal dreams dashed, as Canada West held on for a narrow 4-3 victory.
“The game didn’t start off the way we wanted it to,” Talbot says of the final. “But we battled back. We thought we had the tying goal with a minute or two left in the game but their goalie got a glove on it right before it crossed the line.
“That memory sticks with me; it was heart-wrenching. Unfortunately it didn’t go our way but to be able to play for the gold medal for your country was just an unbelievable experience and one I’m very grateful for.”
For Nash, the memories are a little more positive.
“My grandma and grandpa were there. I know they were extremely proud and enjoyed the experience as much if not more than I did,” he says, laughing. “Any time you can come away a champion that’s not something that happens every day. You don’t always have success, so I look back at that as one of the most memorable and fun experiences.”
Eight years later, both firmly entrenched as NHLers, Nash and Talbot have more than just fond memories. They both look back at their World Junior A Challenge experiences and recognize lessons that have contributed to realizing the dream of playing professional hockey.
“[The tournament] taught me that there are a lot of good players out there and you just have to work and believe in yourself,” says Nash. “You don’t have time to doubt yourself or to doubt the team or to doubt the system; you just have to buy in 100 per cent and believe in it and go after it. Usually when you’re invested 100 precent in something it usually works out.”
Talbot agrees. “You never know what can happen if you work hard. Growing up in a small town (Caledonia, Ont.) and being selected to play for your country is just a dream come true, and I think that all the hard work leading up to that point paid dividends.
“If you work hard enough and want it bad enough dreams can come true. That’s what I’ve kept doing and that’s probably one of the reasons I am where I am today.”