It’s getting difficult to remember, but the World Junior Hockey Championship used to be a whole lot smaller.
There have been times when the last game of the tournament ended in a tie and they left it that way. No shootout. No guarantee of a massive on-ice celebration.
There wasn’t always a medal round.
There wasn’t much attention at all.
Now, the tournament has become so massive, that it has spawned another tournament.
Canada, the United States, Finland and Sweden are together in Plymouth, Mich., for the second consecutive year for a summer showcase that precedes final selection camps in December and the eventual decisions on the players who will represent their countries at the World Juniors.
The London Knights have four players and a former player participating. Robert Thomas, Cliff Pu and Victor Mete on Team Canada, Max Jones on Team USA and Janne Kuokkanen on Team Finland. Kuokkanen was not drafted while playing in the OHL, so he is eligible to play in the American Hockey League at the age of 19 and he is expected to be with the Carolina Hurricanes’ farm team in Charlotte this fall. He is still eligible for the World Juniors.
Londoner Nick Suzuki is also taking part.
Thomas has been going through a bit of a wild summer. He was drafted by the St. Louis Blues, went through their development camp, and is getting set for the Blues’ rookie tournament in Traverse City and then possibly the main camp in St. Louis.
In the middle of all of that, the Blues’ first rounder in 2017 has put on a Team Canada sweater for the first time since he played at the Under-17s in 2015.
“It is definitely a little nerve-wracking,” says Thomas. “But it’s pretty nice to be able to play with some of the best players in Canada.”
Thomas has put himself in that class about as quietly as any player could. He isn’t known for end-to-end rushes, although he did score on one during a 5-on-3 penalty kill last year. He doesn’t fill the net with pucks or lay out opponents with crushing hits, but he is one of the younger players on Team Canada’s radar for a reason.
As many scouts put it, he does the things you need in order to win. Thomas has tremendous awareness, both offensively and defensively, he has a great frame and protects the puck at all times and in a world where puck possession is so key, Thomas is exceptional on faceoffs.
Still, he says he’s just trying to keep things simple in Plymouth.
“I’m just trying to show I belong… Hopefully, I can impress (Hockey Canada) enough to get another invite before the tournament.”
If there has been one knock through his first two years in the Ontario Hockey League, it’s that Thomas doesn’t shoot the puck enough, although you wouldn’t know it watching him during a Canada-U.S.A. matchup to begin the Summer Showcase.
In what Thomas called, “a bit of a clumsy play,” his team got the puck in transition, and big Windsor Spitfires’ defenceman Logan Stanley set up Thomas with a drop pass and he wired in the game winner in a 2-1 Team Canada victory.
The play even surprised Thomas a little bit.
“I haven’t taken a whole lot of those, but it all worked out.”
There isn’t much that hasn’t for the Aurora native. Making Team Canada as anything but a 19-year old is tough. Thomas has his London Knights’ teammate, Victor Mete to tell him about that. Mete attended Canada’s final selection camp as a 17-year-old and 18-year-old, but has not made the final roster.
This year the World Juniors tournament is in Buffalo, NY. Canada opens up against Finland on Boxing Day and for the first time in years, will not play a game on New Year’s Eve. Canada will meet Team USA in an outdoor game on Dec. 29 at New Era Field.
Team Canada erased a two-goal deficit in the third period on Tuesday against Finland and won the game 6-5 in overtime on a goal by Michael McLeod of the Mississauga Steelheads.
Canada will play Sweden on Friday in their second Summer Showcase game. There is a very good chance that both Thomas and Mete will dress.
The tournament ends when Canada meets Team USA on Saturday night.