TORONTO – Five years ago, Buffalo Sabres center Tyler Ennis figured he had a good chance to earn a coveted spot on Team Canada’s world junior championship squad.
The 24-year-old was one of his country’s most electrifying junior talents, a first-round draft pick in the midst of a dynamic 43-goal, 85-point season with the Medicine Hat Tigers. He felt he had enjoyed a strong training camp.
But, Ennis said, “Anything can happen.” Canada always has a wealth of elite junior players.
“They said, ‘If you get a phone call in the night, you’re cut,’” Ennis, whose Sabres face the Maple Leafs tonight at the Air Canada Centre, said earlier this month.
The phone rang during the night.
“They’re like, ‘Is Tyler there?’” Ennis recalled. “I was like, ‘Which Tyler?’”
Ennis’ roommate was Tyler Cuma, a defenseman Minnesota selected 23rd overall in 2008, three spots before Buffalo grabbed Ennis.
“They said, ‘Tyler Cuma,’ and I was like, ‘Oh, God, thank God,’” Ennis said. “But I felt bad for my roommate because he got cut. I was a little nervous. But it was a real special feeling to make it.”
Ennis wound up dazzling, scoring three goals and seven points in six games as Canada won gold in Ottawa.
The Edmonton native called making the team and winning his “biggest accomplishment ever.” He grew up watching the tournament, a collection of the best hockey talent under 20 in the world.
“One of our Christmas traditions,” Ennis said.
Fifteen current Sabres, including center prospect Mikhail Grigorenko, who was loaned to Russia for this year’s tournament in Malmo, Sweden, played in the world juniors as youngsters.
“To be able to make that team was so cool,” Ennis said. “I remember as a kid just thinking it was cool to make your top team in the city. To be amongst the top players in your age group in the country, especially a country where hockey means everything, was very special and twice as special to win it.”
Players still sound nostalgic about an experience many of them said was career-changing.
“At the time, that’s the pinnacle of a lot of guys’ careers because that’s the best level you’ve played at,” said Sabres winger Drew Stafford, who won a gold medal 10 years ago and represented Team USA twice. “That’s the best level they’ve played at because you’re playing against the best in your age group in the world.”
That taught Stafford he belonged with the best.
“World juniors was definitely a test of, ‘OK, all these other guys are slotted to play in the NHL, here I am playing right with them,’” he said. “Definitely a confidence booster when you’re playing against a lot of guys … that are all hyped up and supposed to be top guys. You fit right in. I can definitely understand what a lot of guys are going through.”
Like Ennis, Sabres defenseman Tyler Myers, who also won gold with the Canadians five years ago, remembers “the trial process being pretty stressful.”
“That last night, whether you get the phone call or the knock on the door … I don’t think many guys get much sleep that night,” Myers said. “To have represented your country in a tournament like that, not only represent it but to come together and win as a group, it was a pretty special moment for me.”
Those players on the 2008-09 Canadian team, which also includes Sabres center Cody Hodgson, share a special bond. Myers still stays in touch with those teammates.
“If we would’ve lost, I don’t think a lot of us would be in touch with each other as much as we are now,” Myers said.
Sabres defenseman Mark Pysyk endured a night similar to Ennis’, although he wasn’t as fortunate.
“The night when you wait for the phone call in the morning, it’s pretty nerve-racking,” Pysyk said.
Pysyk was rooming with Sabres forward Marcus Foligno during Team Canada’s camp prior to the tournament in Buffalo three years ago.
“They called and asked if Mark was there, and I was just hoping they were asking for Marcus,” Pysyk said.
They wanted to speak with Pysyk, though.
“He made it and I got cut,” he said.
Pysyk said the two laugh about it now.
“He was pretty excited that he made the team, but he was trying not to show it to me,” Pysyk said about Foligno, who was, as a dual citizen, representing Canada in Buffalo, his hometown. “I could tell he was excited and he could tell I was disappointed.”
Pysyk made the team the next year.
“I didn’t get the call,” he said. “You wake up and you made the team. It’s a blast, pretty special.”
Notes: The Sabres have sent Johan Larsson back to Rochester after one game. The forward played in Thursday’s 5-0 loss at the Spengler Cup in Switzerland. … Grigorenko had a goal and three points in Russia’s 11-0 win Thursday against Norway. Sabres prospects Gustav Possler (Sweden), Rasmus Ristolainen (Finland) and Nikita Zadorov (Russia) are also participating in the tournament. … The Sabres had the last three days off for Christmas.