Dallas Stars James Neal and Jamie Benn are top six forwards in the NHL these days. They were top line guys when they were in junior hockey. But when they suited up for Team Canada at the World Junior Championship they took on different roles.
“Fourth line,” said Benn. “Grinder.”
Roles they were willing to accept.
“You’ve got to fit into a role to be able to make the team ,” said Neal. “If going out there and being a fourth line guy, being a checker and being physical is what I had to do, then I was happy to do that. That was my role throughout the tournament. It was fun, and if the team was winning it was great.”
Accepting those roles brought the reward of winning to Neal and Benn, who were part of Canada’s run of five straight World Junior Championship gold medals from 2005 to 2009. Neal won gold in 2007 and Benn in 2009.
“To make the team I had to do whatever it takes, and they wanted me to fit into that bottom six role,” said Benn. “I was willing to do whatever it took. I was put there, I was happy and I got a gold medal for it.”
Stars associate coach Willie Desjardins, an assistant coach with Team Canada in 2009 and head coach in 2010, said having star junior players like Neal and Benn take on a smaller role than what they are used to is par for the course.
“You look back over the years and all the guys that make the teams are top threes or fours, all of them. One or two might be a bit of a checking guy, but most of them are one or two on their team for sure,” Desjardins said. “You have to have guys to fill those roles. Everybody is asked when they come in and, of course, the guys say they’ll be good with it. It’s a big honor to play on that team. Basically everybody commits for three weeks to take whatever role they have. They may not be happy with it inside, but there will be no complaining and they’ll go as hard as they can.”
Benn was a fourth line guy, but he also served as a power play specialist for Canada in 2009, scoring three of his four goals in the tournament on the power play.
“His role at the start wasn’t a huge one,” said Desjardins, an assistant coach on Team Canada that year. “But he had such good hands he got more and more time as it went along and I remembering him getting a big 5-on-3 goal.”
At the 2009 World Junior Championship held in Ottawa, there was no bigger goal than the one scored by Jordan Eberle in the semifinal game against Russia. Eberle’s goal with 5.4 remaining in regulation tied the game at 5, and Canada went on to win in the shootout behind goals by John Tavares and Eberle.
“Pretty scared,” Benn said of those final seconds of regulation as Canada scrambled for the equalizer. “As a team you don’t want to be the team to end the streak. We had won four in a row. We were getting down to the end, 10 seconds and then five when we finally scored there. It was pretty nerve racking, pretty exciting. To win it in the shootout was pretty special.”
Canada then went to knock off Sweden 5-1 in the final game, giving Canada its fifth straight gold medal.
“It was a pretty cool experience; winning the gold medal in front of your home fans was pretty special,” said Benn. “That gold medal game was pretty exciting, sold out barn and pretty loud. It was just cool to win it at home.”
Like the 2009 team, Neal and the 2007 squad had some tense moments in the semifinals before they got to a gold medal game.
The 2007 tournament was held in Sweden, where Team Canada and Team USA met in the semis. The two rivals were tied 1-1 after regulation and overtime and then staged a seven-round shootout for the right to play for gold. Under international rules if the shootout is tied after the first three shooters, any player can shoot any number of times, and some big names took center stage.
Jonathan Toews scored three times in the shootout for the Canadians, Jack Johnson scored twice to keep the Americans alive and Canadian goalie Carey Price had a big save on Patrick Kane to keep his team alive, and then Price's stop in the seventh round on Peter Mueller, who had already scored twice, gave Canada the victory.
“It’s hard to explain. You’re going crazy after every goal and every save,” said Neal. “You’re on your toes because if you miss just one shot you are going to the bronze medal game and with the pressure Canada has to win gold it was tough, but what a feeling. It was just amazing.”
And so was getting the gold medal after taking the down the Russians in the final game.
“It’s such a thrill. It’s something you never forget," said Neal. “Growing up as a kid you dream about playing for Team Canada in the Word Juniors. It was a dream come true to make the team and, obviously, to go over there and win gold and bring your gold medal back home. It’s a special moment.”
2011 World Junior Championship
When: December 26-January 5
Where: Buffalo, NY
Dallas Stars prospects playing: G Jack Campbell (USA), D Patrik Nemeth (Sweden), D John Klingberg (Sweden)
Television: NHL Network (Click here for schedule)