Current Kings Reflect on World Junior Memories
By the winter of 2007, the two teenagers had spent two years whacking and jawing at each other in Ontario Hockey League games, the high-profile defenseman from Guelph competing hard against the high-energy winger from Owen Sound and Sault Ste. Marie.
``I absolutely hated him as a player,’’ Doughty said of Simmonds.
``I didn't like him too much,’’ Simmonds said of Doughty.
Imagine their dismay, then, when the roommate assignments were announced before the start of the 2008 World Junior Championships. Like something out of a bad buddy comedy, Doughty and Simmonds ended up as hotel roommates for the tournament.
Turns out, it was the start of something great. Doughty and Simmonds became good friends -- three years later, they’re roommates in Southern California and teammates on the Kings -- and the World Juniors helped jump-start both of their pro careers.
The World Junior Championships were first officially held in 1977, and the tournament is the top international competition for under-20 players. The gold- and bronze-medal games for this year’s tournament will be played Wednesday and include Kings prospects Brayden Schenn (Canada), Derek Forbort (USA) and Maxim Kitsyn (Russia).
``it's the biggest thing you can do at that age. it's a cool experience,’’ said Kings assistant captain Matt Greene, who played for the United States in 2003.
Nearly half of the Kings’ current roster played in the World Juniors, including Doughty, Simmonds, Greene, Jonathan Bernier (Canada), Dustin Brown (USA), Michal Handzus (Slovakia), Jack Johnson (USA), Trevor Lewis (USA), Ryan Smyth (Canada), Jarret Stoll (Canada) and Marco Sturm (Germany).
The tournament lasts less than two weeks, but it’s a major event, particularly in Canada, where it’s essentially the teenage version of the Stanley Cup Finals.
For some, it’s a chance to get noticed, by close-watching NHL executives, on a worldwide stage.
That’s not the case for Schenn, Forbort and Kitsyn, all of whom are already in the Kings’ system, but it certainly was the case for Doughty three winters ago.
Doughty was already a well-regarded prospect when the 2008 World Juniors started in the Czech Republic, but he raised his stock considerably by being named the tournament’s top defenseman as he won the gold medal with Canada.
In addition to Simmonds, Team Canada included current Kings backup goalie Jonathan Bernier, as well as defensive prospect Thomas Hickey, but Doughty, who had turned 18 less than a month before the start of the tournament, was the breakout star.
``I have great memories,’’ Doughty said. ``That tournament was a huge stepping stone for me, in my career. In that tournament, in one game I just started to pick it up.
``I got comfortable with the team, and that served as a big deal, a big reason why I got drafted by L.A. Dean (Lombardi, Kings general manager) really liked the way I played there at World Juniors, so obviously that was important, but just being able to represent your country and win a gold medal, that was huge.’’
Doughty, Simmonds, Bernier and Hickey were part of a memorable Canada team that won gold in 2008, the fourth of five consecutive gold-meal wins for Canada.
Canada led the gold-medal game 2-0 before Sweden scored five minutes into the third period, then tied the game with 38 seconds left in regulation. Matt Halischuk, now a prospect in the Nashville organization, scored the golden goal
3:36 into overtime.
That made a medal-winner out of Simmonds and helped him continue his climb.
Simmonds had been a surprise second-round draft pick of the Kings six months earlier, and had been something of a surprise pick for Canada but played all seven games.
``The World Juniors was unbelievable,’’ Simmonds said. ``I don't think I was even supposed to make that team, and then I guess I just came from nowhere and made the team. It was a great feeling just to make the team, never mind winning the gold.
``I remember overtime, when we played Sweden and Hally [Halischuk] scored that goal. I remember all the boys just jumped off the bench, and it was nuts. It was probably the best feeling I've had, up until now, in hockey. To know that you can play on that stage, that's definitely a huge confidence-booster too.’’
The tournament creates an odd dynamic, particularly for the Canadian kids. Most of them play against each other, either in the OHL or Western Hockey League, then are pushed together for two weeks during the middle of their competitive junior seasons.
Nationalism wins out, though, and lifelong bonds develop. Doughty says that he still hangs out with several of his teammates from the 2008 team, and of course he sees one every day, as he now shares a house with Simmonds after their rocky start.
``That was quite a rivalry in the (OHL), and we always matched up against each other,’’ Simmonds said of Doughty. ``I didn't like him too much, until he was my roommate and I found out he was a good guy. Now he's my roommate here, so I can't complain.’’
Smyth also won gold with Canada in 1995. Stoll won silver in 2002 and bronze in 2001, while Johnson and Lewis were teammates on the United States’ bronze-medal team in 2007. But even for those who don’t win gold, the tournament is still worthwhile.
Greene and the United States lost in the bronze-medal game -- Brown was his teammate -- during Greene’s freshman year at the University of North Dakota.
Greene had been drafted in the second round a few months earlier, and made it to the NHL with the Edmonton Oilers during the 2005-06 season.
``It was fun,’’ Greene said. ``There are a lot of guys around the world that you hear a lot about when you're that age, but you don't get to see them and it's kind of fun to get to play against them and see where you stack up.
``It's a different level of competition, but it's also, you hear about all these Canadian guys playing major juniors, or you hear about the European guys, and you get to see them. It was (Alexander) Ovechkin's first year, my year there, and just being able to play against those guys that you hear a lot about, and maybe see on TV, being able to play against them was pretty cool.’’
The World Juniors present a unique experience. Five or 10 years from now, it’s likely that Schenn, Forbort and Kitsyn will be in NHL battle against players who, today, are their teammates and countrymen.
Those pro battles will be intense, but in the backs of those players’ minds will be the fun experiences they once shared while representing their countries.
``In that short time, you just put away everything from the past,’’ Doughty said. ``You're a team, and you bond so well together. Even though it's a short period of time, you make so many memories with those guys.’’