How big a step is participating in the World Junior Hockey Championships to a future NHL regular?
Buffalo Sabres left wing Clarke MacArthur calls making Team Canada in 2005-06 the happiest moment of his life.
Center Derek Roy compares the pressure to the Stanley Cup.
Left wing Daniel Paille recalls goose bumps, playing for his home nation in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Center Tim Connolly and right wing Drew Stafford are living proof that USA Hockey, which won gold in 2004, is moving in the right direction. Western New York hockey fans will get the chance to see similar stories forged when the tournament is held at HSBC Arena and Niagara University's Dwyer Arena from Dec. 26, 2010 through Jan. 5, 2011.
"Winning the gold medal, when the clock was winding down against Canada, it's something I will have for the rest of my life," said Stafford, referring to a 4-3 victory in Finland in 2003-04, his first of two appearances in the event. "The second year it was in Grand Forks, N.D., which is where I was playing college [North Dakota] at the time, so it made it even more extra special for me.
"Any time you play for your country, and I've been fortunate to play in quite a few events, it's an honor and a real privilege."
Connolly doesn't remember being nervous while wearing red, white and blue in Winnipeg in 1999.
"When you're at that age [20-under] and you get the chance to compete on a worldwide level, to play for your country against all the other top junior players in the world, it's a pretty exciting feeling," he said. "There are a lot of NHL scouts at the tournament and they're looking to see how you can do against other top players from around the world. There are players who have already been drafted [competing] in the tournament and it's definitely a steppingstone to the NHL."
In 2004-05, MacArthur played alongside Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby, Anaheim's Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry and Boston's Patrice Bergeron in helping Canada win the gold medal in Grand Forks.
"I do [flash back to it], especially when I see guys around the league like Bergeron," MacArthur said with a grin. "It always makes you think back to those times. Any time I'm at home in the summer my dad has a big shrine there with my jersey and other things. It's a great memory, that's for sure."
At the time, he was excelling as a junior player, tallying 30 goals and 74 points in just 58 games with the Medicine Hat Tigers in Alberta.
"I felt like I was ready at the time," he said. "I went in and got more of a checking role and penalty killing. I loved it. It was a chance for me to show my speed and I think I did a good job there. Getting to play with guys you knew were going to go to the next level and knowing that I could keep up and play with them really helped my confidence."
Because the tournament consists of just 31 games, all are important.
"It's a short tournament and every game is a crucial game, so every game is a Stanley Cup final game," said Roy, who won 59 of 82 faceoffs in helping Canada take silver in 2002-03. "Every team is at their best, and it's all the best players in the world at that age level."
Paille captained Team Canada to a silver in Finland in 2003-04, his second year on the squad.
"Every shift you got goose bumps," he said. "You could hear the crowd screaming and every shift was so important. You get the chills playing for your country."
Ten other Sabres played in the World Juniors, including (number of appearances in parentheses): Jochen Hecht (4), Max Afinogenov (2), Andrej Sekera (2), Jaroslav Spacek (2), Toni Lydman (2), Nathan Paetsch (2), Adam Mair (1), Thomas Vanek (1), Teppo Numminen (1), and Henrik Tallinder (1).
"I think it's probably the biggest honor you can have in hockey, representing your country," said Paetsch, who won two silver medals. "I don't think it gets any bigger."