No matter where they placed, or where they go in their careers, no players involved in the 2021 world junior hockey championship will forget the surreal experience of playing in a bubble in an empty arena.
“It was a unique thing — the quarantine and bubble and basically being either in your room or at the rink. Let’s hope it never happens again,” said forward Keanu Derungs of the Victoria Royals, who played for Switzerland.
Derungs and Canadian goaltender Dylan Garand of Langford, both 18, are eligible to return to the world junior tournament next year when it will be hosted again by Edmonton and Red Deer but in what is expected to be a more normal time.
Goaltender and New York Rangers draft pick Garand, who played one period in backing up Canadian starter Devon Levi, is projected to step up to the starting role in the 2022 tournament as Canada will look to turn silver into gold next January.
“It was obviously not the result we wanted, but I learned a lot,” said Garand, on his way back to the Island via Kamloops, where he plays in the WHL for the Blazers.
“It was disappointing but a valuable experience. All the five [Canadian] players eligible to return next year will be motivated.”
Former Victoria Grizzlies captain Alex Newhook, meanwhile, will have to be content with a silver medal in his world junior career after Canada was beaten 2-0 by the U.S. in the final Tuesday. The gutty forward, however, won strong reviews for his play and especially for returning to action after what looked to be a potential tournament-ending shoulder injury.
“It takes a lot to take Alex Newhook out,” said Grizzlies GM and head coach Craig Didmon, who mentored Newhook during his two starry seasons in the BCHL with the Grizzlies.
Didmon remembers when Newhook broke his wrist while playing in Victoria but completed his shift with a “soccer assist” on a goal. He then had to be restrained by trainers from going back on the ice to complete the game.
Although he looks undersized, Newhook’s build is deceptively thick, which should hold the 2019 first-round draft pick in good stead in his NHL career with the Colorado Avalanche.
“Alex is only five-foot-11 but he’s 190 pounds with a wide build and trunks for legs that give him a lot of strength and allow him to be a physical player,” said Didmon.
Newhook and Garand became the 12th and 13th players from the Island or from an Island team to win a medal for Canada in the world junior tournament. Kent Manderville twice, Jamie Benn, Mark Morrison, Paul Cyr and Joe Hicketts won gold. Newhook, Garand, Mel Bridgman, Rick Lapointe, Tyson Barrie, Curt Fraser and Gary Lupul won silver and Morrison, Cyr and Matt Pettinger bronze. Rod Brind’Amour and Russ Courtnall had fourth-place finishes for Canada.
While Newhook had three goals and three assists in six games in Edmonton, Derungs was held point-less in four games for the winless but plucky Swiss, who lost to Germany and Slovakia by one goal and Finland by two goals. Derungs, like Garand, was in the younger age group and the experience will no doubt make him a better player as he evolves into an expected top-six forward for the Royals.
“It was a huge honour representing my country. We were close but didn’t get the results. You learn that when playing against the best junior-age players in the world, even small mistakes cost you a lot,” said Derungs, who was named the Royals’ top rookie last season for his 15 goals and 14 assists in 57 games.
Newhook will return to Boston College of the NCAA while Garand and Derungs will wait to see if the WHL commences play. With the WHL season postponed indefinitely due to the pandemic, Derungs started the season on loan from the Royals to EVZ Academy of the Swiss pro second division, where he had three assists in 16 games.
“It was a good experience. It’s pro, it’s tougher, because you are playing against men,” he said.
Derungs is back in Victoria, with the juices flowing from his stints in the pros and the world junior championship.
“It will definitely be disappointing if the WHL doesn’t start. I am really hoping it does,” he said. “I will just wait it out and try to stay fit doing what I can around the house.”
Derungs became the fourth Royals player to compete in the world junior championship since the club came to the Island in 2011-12. The mobile blueliner Hicketts won gold with Canada in 2015 at Toronto and placed sixth in 2016 at Helsinki. Forward Igor Martynov represented Belarus in 2018 and current Royals captain Phillip Schultz played twice for Denmark.