Friends turn into rivals for world juniors
By Ed Willes
December 26, 2008 10:00 AM
American Jonathon Blum (left) and Canadian Thomas Hickey are captains of their respective teams at the 2008 world junior hockey championship in Ottawa.Photograph by: Getty Images fileIt would seem to be the strangest sort of friendship, but once you get past a couple of things — like one is from the hockey hotbed of Calgary and plays in the U.S., and the other is from the hockey not-so-hotbed of, ahem, Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif., and plays in Canada — you understand why Thomas Hickey and Jonathon Blum have become close over the years.
Both, for starters, are undersized defencemen who play a brainy, two-way game while sharing a similar understated personality. Both were taken in the first round of the 2007 draft, Hickey fourth to Los Angeles and Blum 24th to Nashville, and both are 1-2 in any discussion concerning the best defenceman in the WHL.
Both, finally, are the same age, which means — in addition to the four years they’ve battled each other in junior — they’ve met at the same best-on-best and top-prospect events over the years.
“It’s something that started out of mutual respect,” says Hickey, the Seattle Thunderbirds’ blueliner.
“That’s the way it goes in hockey,” says Blum, who plays with the Vancouver Giants. “We met and found out we have a lot in common.”
A while ago, in fact, Blum texted Hickey and congratulated him on being named captain of Canada’s entry at the world junior hockey championship. And that communique is noteworthy because it’s the last civil word which will pass between the two pals for the next two weeks.
Starting today, the friendship between Hickey and Blum ends and the rivalry begins as the world juniors kick off in Ottawa. Hickey has been elected captain of Team Canada over, among others, John Tavares and Canucks first-rounder Cody Hodgson, which tells you all you need to know about his standing on the team.
Blum, for his part, has been appointed captain of a stacked American squad, which features seven returning players from last year’s fourth-place team and has no fewer than 17 19-year-olds.
Canada and the U.S. meet on New Year’s Eve in the round robin’s marquee matchup and it figures they’ll meet again in either the semifinals on Jan. 3 or the gold-medal game on Jan. 5. So, on top of everything else they share, both Hickey and Blum know what’s at stake over the next two weeks, just as they know the teams which stand in the way of what they most covet.
That’s why, by mutual agreement, the happy-texting days will be suspended for the next fortnight or so.
“You pull for each other, but we both understand things are going to be different for the next two weeks,” says Hickey, who’s also the roommate in Seattle of U.S. forward Jim O’Brien. “You want them to do well. Just not too well.”
“We’ve become friends over the last couple of years, but it ends on the ice,” Blum says. “We’ve got new friends for the next couple of weeks.”
Blum’s new pals also represent the biggest obstacle to Canada’s quest for a fifth straight world junior title. The Americans, who were thumped 4-1 by the Canadians in last year’s semifinal in the Czech Republic, are a deep, veteran group with front-line talent and an able supporting cast. The problem is, they’ve never been able to beat Canada in North America — or most anywhere else, for that matter — and Blum is fully aware of the history between the two countries.
“The ’04 tournament (in Helsinki, the U.S.’s only gold medal) gets mentioned a lot on our team,” Blum says. “Canada has a lot more pressure. They’re the defending champs.
“Sometimes it’s good flying in under the radar. If we’re clicking, we can beat anyone in the tournament.”
This reality is not lost on Hickey, who played a lead role in Canada’s gold-medal turn last year. That’s the good news for the Maple Leaf. The not-so-good news is Hickey’s just one of four returning players on a Canadian team which features 10 players aged 18 and under, including Evander Kane, Blum’s teammate on the Giants.
“I grew up watching this tournament and it was a big thing to play in it last year,” says Hickey. “But now that we’re in Canada, you can feel it [the pressure] building.
“You have to channel that energy. It can make players squeeze the sticks a little harder, but once you get used to it you can use it to your advantage.”
And that energy has always been Canada’s edge. The difference is, this year it might be their only edge.
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