Inside the NHL
The turn of each new year sees Kraken professional scout Stu Barnes venture online to flip through names of past IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship participants and memories they generated ahead of NHL careers.
Barnes, 50, is one of those memory-generating names, having captured gold for Canada at the 1990 world juniors before playing 16 seasons as a forward with five NHL teams. The planet’s foremost Under-20 competition runs Christmas week through early January and has featured roughly two dozen future Hockey Hall of Fame players, including Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Pavel Bure, Dominic Hasek, Joe Sakic, Sergei Makarov, Mats Sundin, Steve Yzerman, Mike Gartner, Peter Forsberg, Eric Lindros, Jarome Iginla and Slava Fetisov.
And as this year’s 45th edition of the 10-nation tournament played its semifinal rounds Monday in Edmonton’s bubble zone, Barnes was reminiscing by phone from his Dallas home about his own experiences 31 years ago in Helsinki, Finland.
“I don’t remember exactly when I scored or got points or anything like that,’’ said Barnes, who at age 19 was among Canada’s oldest players that year, and the team’s third-leading scorer with two goals and four assists. “I just remember the experience and how much fun it was.’’
His experience became a lot more fun on the final day of what was then strictly a round-robin tournament, with Canada’s slim hopes of finishing first overall requiring it to beat Czechoslovakia and for Sweden to at least tie the heavily-favored Soviet Union.
That seemed unlikely as the Soviets led by two goals late, but Sweden staged a furious comeback capped by future Hall of Famer Sundin’s tying marker with just one second remaining. Barnes and his Canadian team were in the final five minutes of their game, clinging to a one-goal lead on Czechoslovakia, when word of the Soviet collapse reached their bench.
“I don’t know if they wanted that news out to make us more nervous, or if they tried to keep it quiet and keep us calm,’’ Barnes said. “But in the end, we found out and it was pretty intense from that point on down the stretch – knowing that if we held on, we’d win gold.’’
Plenty has changed in the three decades since Barnes and company did indeed hold on. The tournament since 1996 has employed a playoff format and while the old Canada-Soviet rivalry – the “Soviets” are now “Russia” – remains alive and well, the emergence of other nations as legitimate junior hockey powers means this is far more than a two-team competition.
Defending champion Canada on Monday advanced to Tuesday’s final by beating Russia 5-0 in a rematch of last year’s gold-medal matchup. Meanwhile, Team USA defeated Finland 4-3 in the other semifinal in what has become one of the tournament’s more recent bitter rivalries.
Finland beat the U.S. in the gold medal game two years ago in Vancouver, British Columbia, then eliminated the U.S. in the quarterfinals of last January’s tourney played in the Czech Republic.
While Canada still leads with 18 gold medals since the tournament’s 1977 inception, Team USA has four world junior titles after winning their first in 2004 — three of those coming since 2010.
Part of that is due to the NHL’s growth in Sunbelt markets like California, Florida and Texas, which kick-started amateur hockey in non-traditional places and eventually bolstered the junior ranks.
Barnes played for the Florida Panthers in the first four years of their existence, then later spent his final five NHL seasons in Dallas with a Stars franchise that relocated from Minnesota a decade prior.
“I think it’s grown,’’ Barnes said of U.S. junior hockey. “I mean, obviously, there are more players playing nowadays. And like any sport, I think the players are better. They’ve either been working out for a while, or have skills coaches they work with.’’
Team USA players from Sunbelt, or non-traditional hockey markets include four from California – one being captain Cam York – and another from Georgia.
Some, like Everett Silvertips netminder and Team USA backup Dustin Wolf of Gilroy, California, have taken a more traditional route by playing in the Western Hockey League (WHL) or the other two Canadian-based major junior circuits. But others increasingly spend their junior careers in the United States Hockey League – where they can maintain their amateur status — and use it as a springboard to the NCAA.
The most promising American teenage players also join the Michigan-based U.S. national team development program, created in 1996, which fields select Under-18 and Under-17 squads against older, more-seasoned competition. The core of those development teams gets added to Team USA for the world juniors and has fared increasingly well against players more their own age.
“Certainly, it’s an incredible game now and an incredible opportunity for so many young guys to be able to play games at all different levels – whether it’s the Western Hockey League (WHL) or other leagues,’’ Barnes said. “It’s exciting. I think it’s continuing to grow and I’m looking forward to the Kraken starting because it will be another opportunity for the game to grow in that area.’’
Alberta native Barnes spent his junior career in Washington with the WHL’s Tri-City Americans and knows hockey already has a foothold here that can only expand. For now, he assumes he’ll initially work upcoming NHL games from his Texas home until the Kraken and league receive more guidance from health authorities on scouting in-person.
And Barnes plans to keep watching the world junior tournament through its gold-medal conclusion, wondering which teenager on his screen might someday be headed to the Kraken – or even the Hall of Fame. One of his teammates and an occasional linemate from the 1990 Helsinki tournament was future Hall of Famer Lindros, who scored four goals that year despite only being 16.
“I remember seeing Eric for the first time in the team’s summer camp and how big and strong he was and I thought ‘Oh man’,’’ Barnes said. “I couldn’t believe it. And then for him to be a 16-year-old in that tournament was pretty incredible. But obviously, he was a special player.’’
There have been far more since, from an ever-expanding global marketplace. And there’s a strong chance at least one “special player” or two from this year’s event finds his way into a Kraken uniform before the decade is out.