As we round into 2023 and look forward to the next half of the season for the Calgary Flames, plenty of hockey fans still have their gazes set on the 2023 IIHF World Junior Championship. The new year means that the knockout rounds have begun, and thus the real drama and excitement are ready to be etched into hockey history forever. Teams Sweden and Finland are still alive, with Flames prospects William Strömgren (Sweden) and Topi Rönni (Finland) set to square off as the two squads are pitted against one another in the quarterfinals.
Speaking of the Flames and World Juniors history and fortunately for Flames fans, there have been a multitude of fantastic players to suit up for both Calgary and their respective international teams in the tournament. To honour the past, let’s have a look at some of the men that fit the aforementioned description whilst standing out amongst their peers. In no particular order or ranking, here are some of the best Flames players to participate in the World Juniors.
Let’s start off this list with a current member of the Flames, centre and alternate captain Mikael Backlund. The 33-year-old native of Västerås, Sweden played for his home country in two World Juniors competitions, 2008 and 2009. The Swede demonstrated much of the reasoning behind why the Flames picked him in the first round, 24th overall in the 2007 NHL Draft. He put up seven points in six games in both tournaments, showcasing the great poise and consistency that Flames fans of today have gotten so used to.
Unfortunately for Backlund, his teams failed to capture a gold medal at either one of his showings. In both years Sweden was ousted by Canada in the final game, part of Canada’s record five consecutive gold medals. However, being second-best in the world is nothing to scoff at and Backlund has certainly parlayed his World Juniors success into a solid NHL career with the Flames. Additionally, the forward would go on to represent Sweden internationally six times after 2009, culminating with a World Championship gold medal in 2018.
Next on our list is most likely a bit of a lesser-known name for Flames fans of today. Sergei Makarov is by no means a Flames legend as he only played in 297 games, but he certainly had his impact in the short time that he donned the flaming ‘C’. The Russian played pro primarily in his home country before coming to Calgary for the 1989-90 season where he infamously won the Calder Memorial Trophy as rookie of the year at age 31.
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Before that, the Hockey Hall of Famer lit up the 1977 and 1978 World Juniors tournaments. His Soviet Union teams lost a single game in both years combined, winning gold both times, and Makarov contributed an impressive 23 points in 14 games over the competitions.
What kind of an all-time Flames list doesn’t include the greatest Flame ever, Jarome Iginla? It goes without saying but to remind any that require it, the legendary Canadian played 16 seasons in Calgary and is either near or atop every statistical category in franchise history. He also happened to be successful outside of his Flames tenure, to absolutely no one’s surprise. His World Juniors experience is the epitome of “one-and-done”. He suited up only once for the red and white in 1996, where he dominated.
“Iggy” was fresh off of getting picked 11th overall by the Dallas Stars and then shipped to Calgary for Joe Nieuwendyk at the time of the 1996 tournament. His commanding play for the Western Hockey League’s Kamloops Blazers earned him a spot on Team Canada, and he rewarded them with a gold medal, a spot on the tournament’s All-Star team, and the honour of being named Best Forward at the event. He scored at a rate of two points per game with five goals and seven assists over six matches. One has to wonder why he wasn’t chosen for the 1995 team as well, though they also won gold without him.
A familiar last name but not first for younger NHL fans, Michael Nylander played parts of five seasons in Calgary throughout the 1990s. The father of current pros Alex and William Nylander, Michael hails from Stockholm, Sweden and represented them on the world stage 15 times including two World Juniors tourneys. His team success wasn’t tremendous in his first year as the Tre Kronor finished sixth despite his 11 points in seven games.
The next year, Nylander’s squad made it to the final on the back of his tournament-leading 17 points in seven games. Regrettably, they fell just short of a gold medal, losing to the then-Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) team that was previously the Soviet Union. For his efforts, he was named an All-Star and Best Forward at the tournament to go with his silver medal.
Finally, we have Czech hockey legend Robert Reichel. He was a fourth-round draft pick of the Flames back in 1989, and what a steal that selection was. The centre scored 40 goals twice for the Flames in the 1990s, and led the team in scoring with 93 points in 1993-94 at the age of just 22. He helped create an outstanding top line alongside Flames legends Theo Fleury and Gary Roberts that terrorized opposing defences. Unfortunately, the team started to struggle and Reichel was shipped off to the New York Islanders in 1997. This all took place after what can only be described as otherworldly World Juniors play from the forward.
Reichel played in three World Juniors competitions, from 1988-90. During this time, he accumulated a whopping 40 points in 21 games. This figure puts him at second all-time in tournament history behind only the storied Peter Forsberg. His best was his last, as he scored 21 points in just seven games in 1990 en route to a bronze medal, Best Forward honours, and an All-Star team spot. His team also won a bronze the previous year, and Reichel would go on to participate in 17 international tournaments for Czechia, including an Olympic gold in 1998.
All in all, this list boasts quite a lot of talent and proves that the World Juniors stage is a big one as it can vault young players into future success in the NHL. All of the listed players triumphed in some way whilst representing their countries early in their careers which helped shape their experiences into fruitful lives of professional hockey. Not to mention, they cemented their places in both Flames and hockey history forever.