Q&A: Canadian WJC gold medallist Virtanen

Sam Cosentino and Shawn McKenzie recap an instant classic between Russia and Canada while also shinning a spotlight on some of Canada’s top players like Max Domi, Darnell Nurse and Connor McDavid.

You could almost feel the relief. As the wave of Canadian players walked down the hall to speak to the media one last time at the IIHF World Junior Championship, all had smiles on their faces, for once. Usually it’s only Curtis Lazar—who, it seems, doesn’t ever not smile—who sported a grin walking down that hall.

But that steely focus was nowhere to be seen late Monday at the ACC.

Connor McDavid had a hole in his right sock, and a gold medal around his neck. Samuel Morin emerged from the dressing room in a navy blazer and a blue-and-white checkered shirt, sans medal. Josh Morrissey still had his skates on. Max Domi—named the tournament’s best forward—had his full uniform on, and flip flops.

Jake Virtanen sported his brand new 2015 World Junior Champions t-shirt, that gold medal around his neck, black Reebok flip-flops on his bare feet. The Vancouver-born and Canucks-drafted 18-year-old stuck around after the throngs of media had mostly cleared out for a chat with Sportsnet following Canada’s nail-biting 5-4 win over Russia.

Sportsnet: Congrats.

Virtanen: Thank you.

SN: That must have been fun. And insanely stressful.

Virtanen: Oh yeah. Probably the first period—we got those first two quick ones— was definitely a good feeling and stuff. We were up 5-1. I think we kind of felt too comfortable. Obviously when they were gettin’ those goals back to back, I think three straight, guys were panicking a little bit. Benny [Coach Benoit Groulx] said to just relax and keep playin’ our game and play hard, and Curtis [Lazar] is the captain, he stepped up and told the guys to keep playing well and strong and relax and play our game. I think that moment was pretty stressful. The last minute of the game was probably the most stressful or me. I know there was a couple shots I couldn’t even see that Fucs [goalie Zach Fucale] was making stops on. It’s unbelievable how good he is and how good he did tonight.

SN: How do you relax in that atmosphere? It was insane in there.

Virtanen: Yeah, it’s huge. The fans were unbelievable. It was awesome. I know they had our back from start to finish, from the beginning of the tournament to now. It was awesome. Just hearing them yell and scream, it just gives us that momentum throughout the game.

SN: What was the feeling on the bench after you guys scored those two quick goals?

Virtanen: We felt pretty confident after those two. We had a lot of confidence and we got a couple more and it just kept goin’ and goin’. I guess when you’re hot, you’re hot, and when you’re cold, you’re kinda cold. That happened for us in the second. This whole experience is just unreal.

SN: How about that final minute?

Virtanen: Everyone was kind of screaming. It was hard to focus. The last minute was definitely the most intense minute of this whole tournament. They got two or three shots there. The guys, I don’t think some guys were even lookin’ at the play on the bench. It was heads down, hope for the best, cross your fingers. It came out the best.

SN: When you’re celebrating out on the ice, what were you saying to each other?

Virtanen: There’s a lot of relationships between guys. Honestly I can’t really remember some of the things we said. I know guys were screaming, going ‘Oh my gosh! Oh my gosh! This is crazy!’ [Laughs]. That’s honestly the only thing I remember. Oh, and saying how fun tonight will be after when we’re celebrating as a team.

SN: What’ll you guys do to celebrate?

Virtanen: I don’t know yet. The coaches haven’t figured anything out yet. I think it’ll be good.

SN: How about that gold medal?

Virtanen: It’s pretty heavy. It’s pretty cool, pretty shiny. Just kidding. It’s definitely an honour to wear this gold medal. Obviously all 24 guys that were here, it was a complete honour to put it on with those guys.

SN: What did you do this morning, and leading up to the game? The day must have dragged on.

Virtanen: Yeah, it was nerve-racking. In the morning, it felt like another game day. The closer it got to the game it was a little more nerve-wracking for me. The guys treat it like every other game. We weren’t coming in thinking this was the biggest game of our lives—but it was, right? [Laughs]. Exactly.

SN: What’s been the best part of this experience for you, other than winning?

Virtanen: Being around the guys, that was the best part. I had shoulder surgery in May, and I couldn’t do the development camp or anything. But definitely being part of the team, meeting these guys. Singing O Canada at the end of the game was unreal, and a moment I’ll never forget.

SN: What was it like being Canada’s darlings over the holidays?

Virtanen: Yeah, it’s cool. Everyone in Canada, I guess when Christmas hits, it’s all about world juniors in Canada. It’s pretty cool to be part of that. But some guys are kind of rattled that we don’t get any presents or anything.

SN: [Laughs] What, no presents?

Virtanen: Hockey Canada got us some things, but not being home, it’s tough, not being with your family at home. My family, and I think everyone else’s family, made the trip out and spent Christmas with us. Either way this whole thing is just unreal.

SN: You’ve said unreal at least 18 times.

Virtanen: Oh yeah. Yeah. [Laughs].

SN: What gifts did you get from Hockey Canada?

Virtanen: They got us Beats by Dre headphones. They were pretty nice. I lost mine on the way here, on the plane. Yeah, I was pretty happy about that. Then we got this stereo thing, too. Two things that play music. We’ll probably be using those tonight.

SN: You’re from Vancouver, and drafted by the Canucks…

Virtanen: My friends back home are probably gonna be pretty excited. I know my phone was goin’ off in the dressing room. I don’t even know how many texts I got, I have to go check it. I know my friends and family are really excited. The Canucks organization is really happy for us and the good job we did. I’m excited to go back and see all my friends. We’ll get a little time off comin’ up. Haven’t really got any time off since the beginning of the year.

SN: And you’re back playing with the Calgary Hitmen tomorrow?

Virtanen: I’m going tomorrow night and playin’ in Moose Jaw tomorrow against Brayden Point, so I’ll be givin’ him a hard time. [Laughs].

SN: How much of what you’re feeling right now is relief?

Virtanen: Yeah. It’s pretty crazy. I’m still soakin’ it in, really. It’s pretty crazy.

SN: It seems like you could talk for days, but you probably want to go celebrate with your teammates.

Virtanen: No, no, it’s good. I’m still soakin’ it in. Back in the dressing room I know the guys are probably going crazy right now. I know they’ll be going crazy tonight. I can’t wait to see my family. I know they’re upstairs. It’s gonna be huge seeing them as well. Unreal.

SN: Unreal. Congrats, and thank you.

Virtanen: Thank you.