When the World Junior Hockey Championship tournament begins Monday in Calgary and Edmonton, Alberta, ten nations will ice teams hoping to win gold representing their home country. The most pressure will surely be on the shoulders of the host Canadians. They are playing on their home turf and will have the eyes of the entire hockey-crazed nation on them each time they pull on their maple leaf adorned sweaters.
Millions of Canadian kids grow up dreaming of playing in the World Championships, but very few get the opportunity to actually do it. When Nick Spaling received an invitation to Team Canada’s World Junior tryout camp in 2007 prior to the start of the 2008 version of the tournament, he was one of 37 players who had the chance to vie for one of those precious few roster spots.
“Growing up in Canada, the World Juniors is a big thing,” Spaling said. “Just being able to get a chance to try out was exciting in the first place. It was an honor just to go to the camp.”
The tryout camp was held in Calgary, so Spaling and his Kitchener Rangers teammate Matt Halischuk boarded a flight hoping to realize a dream. While there is never a good time to get sick, the sore throat that had been bothering Spaling for a couple of weeks was an ominous sign of things to come, and at the worst possible time in his young hockey life to boot.
“We slept kind of close to the airport at a friend’s house and flew out together,” Halischuk said. “He said he wasn’t feeling the greatest all the way through the flight.”
Once they got to Calgary, Team Canada’s medical staff put the players through their physical exams. Spaling’s throat issues raised concern among Canada’s officials, so they sent him off for further testing.
“They had me go get an ultrasound on my spleen,” he said. “It was so enlarged I wasn’t able to play.”
The enlarged spleen and some blood work confirmed that Spaling had mono. That diagnosis meant that there was no way Spaling was going to make the team, and keeping him around would put the other players in camp at risk of catching the contagious malady, so Spaling was quickly sent packing.
“It was a little bit of a disappointment to get sent home the first day and not have my chance to try to make the team and give it a shot,” Spaling said. “There is not much you can do.”
Seeing his friend and teammate go was difficult on Halischuk.
“I think he would have made the team 100%,” he said. “It was tough.”
The World Junior tournament worked out well for Halischuk, as he scored the overtime winner in Canada’s 3-2 victory over Sweden in the gold medal game.
While he wished he could have been on the team, Spaling was happy that his teammate had so much success on the international stage.
“That made it a little easier,” Spaling said. “It was nice to know the guy who was out there. He was out there representing our team and a friend of mine. At least I still wanted to watch it.”
Now that they are teammates again with the Predators, Halischuk is glad to have Spaling alongside at hockey’s highest level.
“It would have been nice to have him on the team and get to play with him there, but I am playing with him now,” Halischuk said. “It is pretty cool. If you had asked me a couple of years ago, I would have never thought I would be playing (in the NHL) with a teammate from juniors. It is pretty exciting.”