Stepping Stone

World Junior A Challenge an International Stepping Stone for Many Talented NHLers

It’s easy to see why the World Junior A Challenge may hold a bit of an inferiority complex. Despite featuring some of the best Junior players in the world it sometimes gets overshadowed in the anticipation of the IIHF World Junior Championship, which takes place at the same time of year.


The United States regularly deploys a roster laced with the best players from the United States Hockey League. In addition, the All-American entry has never finished off the podium, and has taken top honors seven times.


A showcase of “late-bloomers,” described by U.S. Junior Select Team General Manager Marc Boxer, depicts an abundance of players who heard their names called at recent NHL Drafts. This year’s squad competing in Bonnyville, Alberta is no exception.


When those late-bloomers do bloom, and a good amount of them do, the results can be impressive.


There’s a decent contingent of American players who have participated in the WJrAC and have gone on to have success at the NHL level. In addition, several have gone on to have promising professional careers elsewhere.


Topping the list of WJrAC alumni are a pair of dynamic forwards making a name for themselves north of the border, Brock Boeser of the Vancouver Canucks and Kyle Connor of the Winnipeg Jets. Boeser played in the tournament in 2013, while Connor double dipped in 2013 and 2014.


Nick Schmaltz scored 12 points in the 2013 tournament, tied for most all-time.Nick Schmaltz scored 12 points in the 2013 tournament, tied for most all-time.That 2013 group, also boasting New York Rangers defenseman Neal Pionk and Nick Schmaltz, who was recently traded to the Arizona Coyotes from the Chicago Blackhawks, went 4-0-0 en route to a first-place finish in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia.


Schmaltz had four goals and eight assists over the four-game tournament. His 12 points in a single tournament stand for the most all-time, a mark recently tied by the Carolina Hurricanes 2nd overall pick in the 2018 NHL Draft, Andrei Svechnikov (2016).


The Madison, Wis., native obviously has fond memories of the tournament that helped launch his career.


“It was a lot of fun,” he said. “Getting the best players from the USHL together and coming together for a short tournament like that was awesome. Some high-end players, it was a great tournament. We had a lot of fun off the ice, getting to know one another and spending some quality time with guys you wouldn’t normally hang out with, so it was a lot of fun.”

For many, the tournament is their first exposure to the international game. This year’s squad features 10 players making their international debuts.


“It’s cool to play guys from all over,” said Coyotes forward Vinnie Hinostroza, who competed in 2011 and 2012. “You get so used to playing the same guys at the USHL level everyday so it’s cool to get to go out in the middle of the season and play a tournament like that.”


While most of the players know each other as opponents from their time in the USHL, the friendships made over the course of the short tournament often last a lifetime. 


Hinostroza, who captained the U.S. squad to a first-place finish in 2012, said he still keeps in touch with many of his former teammates.


“You see a lot of them throughout the years, you end up on the same team as a bunch of them,” he said. “The hockey world is actually pretty small, so you end up seeing each other all the time, say hi or whatever, go grab dinner whenever if you have some time together. I think winning a tournament like that with the USA sweater on, it’s really special.”


The tournament, albeit brief, provides a good showcase for several players to get increased looks from scouts to try to demonstrate just how good they are. 

 Casey DeSmith entered the 2010 championship game in the second period, shutting the door as the Americans pulled off a three-goal comeback.Casey DeSmith entered the 2010 championship game in the second period, shutting the door as the Americans pulled off a three-goal comeback.

Casey DeSmith made his international debut in the 2010 championship game, coming in early in the second period with the U.S. trailing, 4-1, against Canada East. With the Americans’ bid for a third-straight gold medal on the line, DeSmith turned aside all eight shots he faced as the U.S. rallied to win 6-5.


That experience helped bolster the Rochester, N.H., native’s confidence, especially now that he’s filled into the lead role with the Pittsburgh Penguins in the absence of injured goaltender Matt Murray.


“It’s something I’ll never forget for sure, the comeback that we had in that game was pretty awesome,” DeSmith said. “My dad was there so it’s definitely something I’ll never forget. That was the last time I had a USA sweater on so it’s definitely important to me.”


These short international tournaments are a big key in development, whether it’s the confidence boost coming out of the event or to a player’s thought process of the importance of every game.


“It’s definitely good for developing that mindset. Especially if you go on to play in the world juniors,” said Schmaltz, who has also played in two World Juniors. “You have some experience in how you get to prepare and be ready because you could be out of the tournament in one game.

WJrAC Alumni to Play in the NHL This Season
Player Year(s)
Brock Boeser 2014
Kyle Connor 2013, '14
Adam Gaudette 2014
Dylan Gambrell 2014
Christian Wolanin 2014
Cal Petersen 2013
Nick Schmaltz 2013
Neil Pionk 2011, '12
Vinnie Hinostroza 2011, '12
Jaccob Slavin 2012
Sheldon Dries 2012
Luke Johnson 2012
Sean Kuraly 2011
Mike Reilly 2011
Jordan Schmaltz 2010, '11
Andy Welinski 2011
Ryan Dzingel 2010
Casey DeSmith 2010
Scott Mayfield 2010
Austin Czarnik 2010
Max McCormick 2010
Kevin Gravel 2009
Craig Smith 2007, '08
John Moore 2008


“You’ve got be ready to play in every game. Playing against international competition is always fun and playing in Canada against the Canadian teams was a blast, too. It’s good competition and you really got to be ready to play. You get some good exposure to other leagues and other players.”


A lot of recent WJrAC-alumni are in the development process now, biding their time at the college level while they continue to work their craft until they’re able to crack an NHL roster.


Jack Drury, who currently plays at Harvard, is prepping up for the World Junior Preliminary Camp in Everett, Wash., this weekend. The Hurricanes’ 2nd round, 42nd overall selection of the 2018 NHL Draft played in the WJrAC tournament last year, citing its benefits as his career has continued to progress.


“We lost in the finals to Canada [West] last year,” Drury said. “It’s definitely a motivating factor [for World Juniors] for sure.”


The son of Ted and nephew of Chris is one of five players with WJrAC ties to make the U.S. 2019 World Junior Championship preliminary roster. Joining Drury in attempting to make the final 23-man roster is forward Tyler Madden (2017), defenseman Jack St. Ivany (2017) and Mikey Anderson (2016), and goaltender Cayden Primeau (2016).


Although there might be a few more eyes on Drury if he dons the U.S. sweater this holiday season at World Juniors, last year time at the World Junior A Challenge was an experience the Winnetka, Ill., native truly cherished.


“I think just getting to represent your country any chance you can is really special,” Drury said. “Each game you get to put on the USA jersey is really special. We had a fun team and a great staff and I definitely remember getting to enjoy the whole tournament with them.”

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