From Alexis Lafrenière showcasing his prodigious talents to the dynamic duo of Lucas Raymond and Alexander Holtz making every Sweden game must-watch, there is plenty to remember from the 2018 Hlinka Gretzky Cup, presented by RAM, in Edmonton and Red Deer, Alta.
Before the stage is set for the tournament’s return to Red Deer from July 31 to Aug. 6, let’s take a look back.
“The Hlinka Gretzky [Cup] was great,” recalls Arizona Coyotes head coach André Tourigny, who led Canada as bench boss in 2018. “The things that I remember are those key moments; the comebacks we made, the solid play each game and the comradery throughout the tournament was great.”
Led by the likes of Lafrenière, Kirby Dach, Dylan Cozens and Bowen Byram, Canada was again among the gold medal favourites as it welcomed summer under-18 hockey to Canadian ice for the first time since the 1996 Pacific Cup was hosted in Nelson and Castlegar, B.C.
Debuting the new black Hockey Canada jersey, Canada topped Group A in the preliminary round in Edmonton; Peyton Krebs scored twice in a 10-0 win over Switzerland, Lafrenière and Josh Williams had a goal and a helper apiece in a 4-2 victory over Slovakia and Byram netted a late-winner in a 4-3 triumph over the Swedes.
“The Hlinka Gretzky [Cup] was [my first time] representing Canada, so it was definitely special,” recalls Williams, who finished the tournament tied in second in goals (five) with Lafrenière and Raymond. “As a kid, you dream of playing for Team Canada, and to be able to play with the group of guys, be included in the conversation with them and win the trophy, it still ranks up there.”
Led by future Vancouver Canucks first-rounder Vasily Podkolzin, it was Russia that owned Group B in Red Deer, earning victories over Finland (7-2), the Czech Republic (3-0) and the United States (8-3) to win the group. Podkolzin scored in every game, while 16-year-old netminder Yaroslav Askarov – the 11th overall pick by the Nashville Predators in 2020 – gave fans a taste of what was to come with a 35-save shutout of the Czechs.
The semifinals were set – Russia vs. Sweden and Canada vs. United States.
The Russians and Swedes faced off in a titanic defensive battle, with Askarov and Hugo Alnefelt going save-for-save to get the game to the second intermission goalless. Edmonton Oilers prospect Philip Broberg opened the scoring for the Swedes five minutes into the third period, only for Podkolzin to tie it for the Russians with 1:54 to go.
With overtime looming, Raymond knocked down a clearing attempt and went cross-ice to Karl Henriksson, who rifled a shot past Askarov with 44 seconds left to send the Swedes to the gold medal game.
The all-North American semifinal that followed was an instant classic. The teams went back and forth, with Canada erasing a trio of one-goal deficits before Williams gave it a 4-3 lead early in the third period. Goals 95 seconds apart from Luke Toporowski and Nick Robertson put the Americans ahead 5-4 in the dying minutes, but Cozens beat the buzzer to force overtime, leading to Williams’ extra-time winner to put Canada in the final.
With gold on the line, the Swedes took an early two-goal lead thanks to the two-headed monster of Raymond and Holtz, chasing Canadian starter Nolan Maier from the goal in favour of Taylor Gauthier. The move sparked Canada – goals from Sasha Mutala, Dach and Lafrenière put the Canadians ahead for good before the 18-minute mark, and Mutala and Lafrenière each got a second as Canada closed out a golden 6-2 win.
“[Camp and the tournament are] only two, three weeks, so we go from a moment where we become a team, to learning about the players in such a short span of time, bringing the players to play in the same way, the leadership group of Lafrenière, Bo Byram, those guys were great and we were lucky to have everybody onboard,” says Tourigny.
Lafrenière, the captain, finished with 11 points (5-6—11), the most since by a Canadian since Nathan MacKinnon had that many in 2012.
That total left him even with Podkolzin (8-3—11) atop the tournament scoring chart while Raymond (5-2—7) and Holtz (2-5—7) paced the Swedes, one point back of Montreal Canadiens centre Ryan Suzuki (1-7—8).
When the 2019 NHL Draft rolled around 10 months later, Dach (3rd to Chicago), Byram (4th to Colorado), Cozens (7th to Buffalo), Broberg (8th to Edmonton) and Podkolzin (10th to Vancouver) all went inside the top 10, and Lafrenière led the way as the No. 1 pick to the New York Rangers a year later.
Need one last bit of information on just how good the talent was? When international returned to hockey for the 2021 IIHF World Junior Championship, a whopping 80 players from the 2018 Hlinka Gretzky Cup once again donned the colours of their country, including 11 Canadians, 12 Swedes and 13 Czechs.
Williams added a second championship to his résumé at Rogers Place this season, helping the Edmonton Oil Kings win the Western Hockey League (WHL) title. Even four years later, his international success continues to pay dividends.“Winning the Hlinka Gretzky Cup in 2018 definitely instilled that winning mentality in me and has pushed me to get back to that level. Having experienced both championships, becoming the WHL champions this season with the Oil Kings on the same ice, the Hlinka Gretzky [Cup] was a special tournament to gain that experience and to win in front of friends and family at home.”
Looking back at the talent showcased throughout the tournament, Tourigny agrees that the Hlinka Gretzky Cup is a unique experience for prospects to develop and see the talent from outside of their junior leagues.
“It’s the players’ first real experience of the best hockey in the world,” he says. “They’re playing minor hockey and when you get to the international level, it really is best-on-best. During the summer, you really don’t find that anywhere else. There were a lot of great players in that tournament who will have very great careers in the NHL.”
The 2022 Hlinka Gretzky Cup, presented by RAM, is just days away! Packages and single-game tickets are on sale now .
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