The world junior championship will officially get underway on Monday, and Team Canada has been playing exhibition games all week as they look to rebound from a disappointing showing last year.
If you’re a Maple Leafs fan with an eye on the future, there’s not all that much to get excited about at this year’s tournament. Nikita Korostelev will be there for Team Russia, as will Jeremy Bracco for Team USA. But with eligible players like Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner already lightning it up in the NHL, there won’t be much of the Leafs’ future on display. And there won’t be any Leaf prospects at all on Team Canada.
Honestly, that might be a good thing. While Team Canada has had its ups and downs over the years at the WJC, it’s rarely had anything in the way of good news for Leaf fans. In a good year, the team wouldn’t carry any Toronto prospects at all. In a bad year, they’d find a creative way to punch Leaf fans in the gut.
Today, let’s relive some of that trauma with a look back at the various ways that Team Canada has made Leaf fans sad.
We’ll start our history lesson back in the 90s, since before then it was relatively rare to find Leafs property at the world juniors. That’s because back then, most Leaf prospects were rushed into the NHL lineup right away, which is why players like Wendel Clark and Luke Richardson only made appearances before they were Maple Leaf property. We did get an early peak at names like Russ Courtnall and Gary Leeman in the early 80s, but not many Canadians were paying attention then.
They were by 1991, though, and for most of the nation that year’s tournament stands as a classic. It came down to a final-game gold medal showdown with the Soviets, one that Canada won on a late goal by the immortal John Slaney. It marked the first time in Canadian history that they’d won back-to-back gold medal.
But if you were a Leafs fan, the tournament was… well, let’s say bittersweet. For one, this was the year that Eric Lindros truly arrived as the most dominant prospect in the world, living up to his status as the presumed top pick in the 1991 draft. That should have been good news for the Leafs, given that they were terrible. But they’d already traded that pick in a disastrous trade that would leave them scrambling to claw their way out of last place overall. They eventually would, just barely, and ended up missing out on another Canadian star from this tournament in Scott Niedermayer.
The Leafs did have a prospect of their own on Team Canada. That would be Scott Thornton, taken third overall in the infamous 1989 draft that saw Toronto load up on Belleville Bulls. He was on loan from the big club after scoring just one goal in 23 games; it would be the only goal he’d ever score for the Leafs, as he was part of the Grant Fuhr trade package a few months later.
Meanwhile, the Leafs came away impressed by another Canadian prospect, one who tied with Lindros for the team lead in goals. That was Mike Craig, who’d they pluck away from the Stars a few years later in a terrible RFA signing.
There was one bright side to the tournament, although you’d have to look hard to find it at the time. While Trevor Kidd got six of the seven starts in goal, a Leafs prospect did manage to earn the back-up job and get into a single game. That was a kid named Felix Potvin, who ended up being pretty important in a few years.