Knights revel in junior tournament

MORRIS DALLA COSTA -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 10:30 AM ET

Sam Gagner was in Saginaw for the London Knights game against the Spirit.

He was a happy but tired guy.

Pat Kane was home in London nursing a couple of injuries he picked up at the tournament. He'll probably skate again tomorrow secure in the knowledge he's slated to be a top pick in the NHL draft.

Sergei Kostitsyn won't get back to London until today, after his stint with the Belarussian junior team.

All three of the Knights will likely be feeling the affects of the emotional and physical strain of competing for their respective countries in the recently completed world junior hockey championship.

Gagner was the most successful player from a team standpoint. He helped Canada to a gold medal in the tournament.

Kane was a key figure in helping the United States to a bronze medal. He finished fourth in the tournament in scoring with five goals and four assists, one behind behind the tournament's leading scorers. He was also selected to the tournament all-star team.

For Gagner, he'll mark this tournament down as a true learning experience.

He played regularly early on in the event but as it got later in the tournament, his icetime declined as junior coach Craig Hartsburg went with older players who were on their game.

"It was a huge learning experience for me, especially from the guys returning. They teach you a lot," said Gagner, who looked like he could use a good night's sleep. "You realize that all the best junior players in the world are here and it's a tough tournament to play in. But winning the gold medal was the real goal and it was exciting to be a part of that."

The junior tournament has always been known as an older player's tournament. It's a grind that lasts from the junior selection camp to the tournament's end. Expectations for the Canadian players never change, win or the tournament is considered a failure. An older more mature player is usually best able to handle that kind of stress.

Gagner also was under the microscope because he is only 17 and considered a top National Hockey League prospect. He wasn't disappointed by the ice time he got.

"Everyone there is a major player for his team," Gagner said. "You realize that going in. Everyone knows they have to make sacrifices. I went there wanting to do whatever I could to help the team. In the end winning was what it was all about. To win the gold medal was the best experience in the world."

Kane's status as a potential No. 1 pick in the NHL draft, picked up steam. He proved he's the real deal.

"To be honest with you, I thought I could have played a little better," said Kane. "I didn't control play the way I normally do. I realize that these are the best junior players around, but I have to work harder to play better.

"People tell me my numbers were good and that I'm a young 18 and that's it a 19-year-old tournament so I'm really looking forward to next year."

Kane injured an ankle his first day of practice with the American team and he has some sore ribs, something he hopes will be cleared up in a few days.

Gagner faced Kane twice during the tournament with the Canadians emerging on top in both games. The second game was in a semifinal when the Canadians won in an extended shootout. Kane had two opportunities in the shootout and missed both times.

"It bothers me," said Kane. "But the total experience was awesome. We had a really close team that showed a lot of character. The competition was great, a lot better than the OHL."

Like every young Canadian hockey player, Gagner grew up watching the world junior tournament. But watching it didn't give you the sense of what a true experience playing in it would be like.

"When you put on the Canadian sweater for the first game, it's a feeling you can't describe," said Gagner. "It's a tough tournament. There's a lot of skill and it's a fast paced game. It's a grind, every game you have to be up for because it is pretty much the best-of-the-best in junior hockey. When you play, you realize what a tough tournament it really is."

Gagner didn't have any encounters with Kane during the tournament.

"We talked a little bit on the internet but that was it," said Gagner. "He had a great tournament and I was so happy when he was named to the all-star team. He deserved it. He came through for them like he's been coming through for us all year."

The team who might benefit more than anyone in all this is the Knights. While Kane and Gagner have come back with medals, they've also come back with a real understanding of pressure and playing in a supercharged atmosphere.

No doubt it's a situation these young, talented players will find themselves in repeatedly not only this year but in years to come.


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