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World junior hockey tournament gets NHL players bragging and betting

You can't spray a handful of birdseed in an NHL dressing room without hitting an alumnus of the world junior men's hockey championships.

Dozens of players from several countries have played in it and many more than once during their hockey careers.

Whether they played for their countries in it last year or 15 years ago, the alumni take a keen interest when it is on.

National pride, memories and the natural competitiveness among NHL players generate debate, wagers and bragging in the dressing room.

"There's definitely a little bit of trash-talking that goes through the room," says Edmonton Oilers centre Jordan Eberle, who twice played for Canada in the tournament.

"It's usually the Europeans who do the most trash-talking. They think they're the best, the Swedes, the Czechs and the guys from the States the last couple of years."

The betting stakes are often the loser taking the winner out for dinner, or in some cases, wearing another country's jersey.

“Friendly? I don't know about friendly, but we have side bets, for sure,”says Vancouver Canucks forward Daniel Sedin, twice a member of Sweden's junior team.

"Usually it's dinner and something like that."

Sidney Crosby played for the Canadian junior team in both 2004 and 2005, winning gold in the latter.

On Jan. 5 of last season, he left a game against the Tampa Bay Lightning because he'd been driven into the boards. It turned out to be one of the two hits that apparently caused his concussion, which eventually shut his season down.

But Crosby was said to be seen that night intently watching on television the final of the 2011 world junior championship in Buffalo, N.Y.

Russia scored five goals in the third period to beat Canada 5-3 for gold, to the delight of Crosby's Pittsburgh Penguin teammate Evgeni Malkin.

"It's usually Geno betting against all the Canadian guys on Russia against Canada," Penguins centre Jordan Staal says of Malkin.

The Atlanta Thrashers, now the Winnipeg Jets, were in Florida playing that Panthers that night.

Jets forward Evander Kane, who won gold with Canada in 2009, recalled the Thrashers' attention wasn't solely on the game they were playing.

“We had our trainers coming in actually during the intermissions and letting us know what the score was in that final game," Kane said.

"I knew it was 3-0 and then after the game Burmi (Alexander Burmistrov) comes in and says it was 5-3 Russia and I couldn't believe it.”

Burmistrov, from Kazan, played for the Russian juniors in 2010

“Big time (joking) in dressing room when Russia came back," Burmistrov said. "Hopefully this year there won't be comebacks. Just win straight.”

There's an interesting dynamic in the Calgary Flames dressing room. Finland's lone gold came in 1998 and centre Olli Jokinen played for the Finns that year.

"Whenever I want to feel good, I bring it up," Jokinen says.

Sitting in the stall next to him is winger Alex Tanguay, whose Canadian team finished a worst-ever eighth that year.

"I try to forget those memories," Tanguay says.

Across the dressing room, defenceman Cory Sarich won gold in 1997 to cap a run of five straight for Canada. But Sarich was also Tanguay's teammate in 1998 when Canada finished far out of the medals

"I like to talk about winning five in a row and then I kind of stop there," Sarich said. "The other one I just kind of leave alone."

In Canada, the games are carried on national television and dominate sports media. That drives interest in Canadian NHL dressing rooms.

There's far less coverage of the tournament in places like Florida, says Vancouver's David Booth, who was acquired from the Panthers this season.

“In Florida, no one knows what (the tournament) is, really,”Booth says.

And some players who don't see what the fuss is all about.

“In the past, there's been the bets where, if your team wins, the other guy has to wear your jersey or your hat or something like that," Canucks defenceman Kevin Bieksa said.

"But, usually, guys like me, I just say turn the page. That was like 10-15 years ago, so grow up. There's more important things going onat Christmas time, in my opinion.”

The 2012 world junior championship opens Boxing Day in Edmonton and Calgary, which means the Oilers and Flames are going on extended road trips while their home rinks are otherwise occupied.

Sarich expects he'll have to search for coverage of the tournament when the Flames are in the U.S.

"It's going to be hard to get a piece of it," he predicts. "I don't think USA Today will be printing much on the world juniors."

Eberle knows full well the pressure Canada will be under to produce gold on home ice this year. Eberle was a standout for the host country in both Ottawa in 2009 (gold) and in Saskatoon in 2010 (silver).

"It definitely adds a little more pressure," Eberle says. "You're in the spotlight. To go to the arena and there's 20,000 fans screaming, it's one of the greatest atmospheres you'll ever get to play in.

"You have to be able to manage that pressure so it doesn't get to you too much. You're expected to win."

For a player from any country, the world junior championship is often their introduction to the big time.

Particularly when the tournament is in Canada, they're playing in front of thousands of people in the building and millions watching on television for the first time in their lives.

Flames captain Jarome Iginla says his experience representing Canada and winning gold in Boston in 1996 helped shape his career.

"It was very powerful. It's huge for growth," Iginla explains. "There's a lot of pressure on the young guys and you learn to deal with that.

"It's one of the best experiences I had, not just hockey, but the memories and getting to be a part of that and represent Canada, it's something that's helped me. What a great time."

___

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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