When you put on a hockey jersey with a maple leaf on the front, nothing less than a gold medal will do.
Jake Virtanen and his teammates on the Canadian under-18 squad were acutely aware of that pressure-laden standard (unfair as it might be) as they departed for the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament, held last week in the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
Canada has historically dominated the prestigious eight-team international event, winning gold 17 times in 23 years, including each of the previous five.
Virtanen and his mates extended that gold rush to six – after a hiccup in the round robin (a 4-3 loss to Sweden), they bounced back to win their next three games, including a 3-1 victory over Russia in the semifinals and a decisive 4-0 triumph over the United States in the final.
“It’s such an honour,” the 16-year-old left winger from Abbotsford enthused. “There was obviously a bit of pressure, but we wanted to go there and win gold, and that’s what we did.
“Playing against the Americans (in the final), that’s one of the biggest rivalries, right? . . . We took it to them. We played hard and how we needed to to win.”
Virtanen is the second Abbotsford hockey prospect to taste success at the Hlinka tournament in recent years. Goalie Nathan Lieuwen, who currently plays in the Buffalo Sabres system, backstopped Team Canada to gold in 2008, kickstarting the current streak of six titles.
Virtanen, who stands 6’1″ and weighs 213 pounds, was asked by Team Canada bench boss Dale Hunter to play a grinding, physical game at the Hlinka tourney – get the puck in deep in the offensive zone, put the body on opposing defencemen, and create havoc in front of the net.
He picked up one assist in five games, spending most of the tournament on a line with a pair of Ontario Hockey Leaguers – Brendan Lemieux of the Barrie Colts and Robby Fabbri of the Guelph Storm.
“All the guys on the team, we formed a great bond with each other,” Virtanen said. “It was such a good feeling to win gold with those guys.”
Representing Canada internationally is an ideal launching pad for Virtanen heading into a pivotal season in his career. He’s embarking on his second full campaign with the Western Hockey League’s Calgary Hitmen, and he’ll be counted on to take a bigger role after posting 16 goals and 18 assists in 62 games as a rookie. He’ll also be eligible for the 2014 NHL entry draft.
“It’ll be pretty fun to get the season going,” said Virtanen, who was the first overall pick in the 2011 WHL bantam draft and departs next week for Hitmen training camp. “My role is going to be a little bit bigger, obviously, but I’m just going to go into camp and try to earn my spot and just keep working hard.”