WILMINGTON, Mass. — While the Bruins are maintaining focus on their next game Wednesday night in New Jersey and not looking ahead to Saturday's showdown with Vancouver, there are a few other games on the minds of many of the players this week.
The World Junior Championships are being held in Alberta, with the semifinals taking place Tuesday night. National pride and bragging rights have kept that tournament a hot topic among the Bruins, more than half of whom competed in the World Juniors when they were younger.
"It's a great tournament," said Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask, who competed for Finland in three World Junior tournaments in 2005, 2006 and 2007. "I had played in the Finnish Elite League plenty of games, but still the speed and the competitiveness of the players [in the World Juniors], it's a totally different level there. Playing in North American hockey rinks in two of those three tournaments probably helped me out coming here too. It's really a great tournament and lots of good players and future NHL stars are in there every year."
Rask is one of 11 current Bruins with World Juniors experience. Combined, the current Bruins have competed in 17 World Junior tournaments, winning four gold medals, six silvers and four bronze. And that doesn't include coach Claude Julien, who guided Canada to a bronze medal as head coach in 2000 and to a silver as an assistant in 1999. Defenseman Andrew Ference was a member of that 1999 squad, while Dennis Seidenberg competed against Julien's Canadian club in 2000, the first of two straight years Seidenberg played for Germany.
Other Bruins had even more success, with Brad Marchand winning gold with Canada in both 2007 and 2008, Benoit Pouliot also earning gold with Canada in 2006 and Patrice Bergeron earning tournament MVP honors during Canada's first of five straight gold medals in 2005.
"It was a blast," Marchand said of his two years playing in the annual showcase of the world's top players under age 20. "It's obviously a huge tournament in Canada. Pretty much everyone at Christmastime gets together to watch it and follows it. It was really such an honor to be part of that team and that tournament. It was a pretty special time."
While diehard hockey fans in the States are familiar with the tournament, and it's becoming a bigger deal here with the U.S. winning gold in 2004 and 2010 and hosting the event in North Dakota in 2005 and Buffalo last year, the true passion for the tournament lies north of the border.
"Besides the Stanley Cup Finals, I would say it's the most watched tournament in Canada," Marchand said. "Really the whole nation kind of shuts down and watches and cheers on the team. It's really unbelievable the support they get up there."
The World Juniors are a big deal in Europe as well, and the Bruins' European contingent also gets emotionally involved. Monday's quarterfinals provided Rask a chance to revel in Finland's 8-5 win over Slovakia, though he promised not to rub it in too much with Bruins captain and Slovakia native Zdeno Chara.
"I'll mention it," Rask said. "It's always a competition in the locker room, especially between the Europeans when we play each other, but nothing too serious. We're not going to bet or anything."
That last statement would be news to several of Rask's teammates, as there have been plenty of friendly wagers on the games already made.
"There's been bets going on the whole time," Marchand said. "Kreech [David Krejci] has been betting everybody. Usually Canada has to win by like five goals for the guys to win. They're usually pretty lopsided victories."
Krejci won't get a chance to bet Marchand again this year. Krejci's Czech Republic comrades fell to Russia 2-1 in overtime in the quarterfinals on Monday. That set up a semifinal clash between the defending champion Russians and the host Canadians on Tuesday, with Finland and Sweden meeting in the other semifinal.
Rask can only hope his countrymen can come away with a medal as he did in his second appearance, when he earned honors as the tournament's top goaltender in 2006.
"We won the bronze," Rask said. "A medal in Finland is always a huge thing. My second year we won the bronze, and that was in Vancouver too. It was a great event. That's the best memory by far that I got from the World Juniors."
Beyond the medals and even the bragging rights, the World Juniors provide the youngsters competing an opportunity to test themselves against top competition and help prepare themselves for the leap to the next level.
"It's huge, that's the first real opportunity you get to play against the best players from all around the world and kind of judge yourself and what you have to do to get to the next level and be in the NHL," Marchand said. "Those are guys you're going to be playing against, so it's really a great way to evaluate yourself and your game."
Bruins fans will get a chance to evaluate two of the organization's top prospects on Tuesday night as Canadian defenseman Dougie Hamilton, the club's first-round pick last June, will be going head to head with Russian forward Alexander Khokhlachev, a 2011 second-rounder. Hamilton has 1-2-3 totals and is plus-4 in four games entering that matchup, while Khokhlachev has 3-0-3 totals and is plus-2 with one game-winning goal in five contests.
On Tuesday, they'll be competing for a trip to the gold medal game, and in the coming years they might just get a chance to revisit the outcome with a friendly wager or two as Bruins teammates.
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