A good tournament needs more than a champion. It needs contenders, needs their rivals, needs otherworldly performances from the sure-things and the also-rans alike. And maybe more than anything else, it needs an underdog.
A glance at the list of countries who’ve enshrined their names in gold at the World Junior Championships might suggest it’s a tourney lacking that spread, with only a handful of countries passing around the title over the tournament’s four decades. But below that elite tier of on-ice powerhouses lies a tournament of an entirely different sort — countries vying not for golds and silvers but to avoid relegation to lower levels, or to prove worthy of having made it to the dance at all.
The tournament within the tournament. The prize, a chance at piecing together a Cinderella run, of having the underdog moniker pinned to their jerseys.
The Austrians have the first leg of that journey already in the bag. Exactly a year ago, they did the unthinkable, entering the 2020 world juniors’ Division I tournament hoping to avoid being bumped down even lower, and instead emerging as champions, winning a ticket to the top division with the big dogs.
Now, they enter Edmonton’s 2021 world juniors bubble with odds stacked as heftily against them as could be — a team that was never supposed to be here, from a country that’s only ever been in the Top Division three times, the last coming a decade ago, and with a murderer’s row of opponents sitting ahead of them: Team USA, Russia, Sweden, and the Czech Republic.
But for all the ways they’re outmatched, Austria has one silver bullet — Marco Rossi, one of the most dangerous prospects in his age group, who leads his countrymen in after a sterling 2019-20 as junior hockey’s most prolific scorer made him the ninth-overall pick in the 2020 NHL Draft.
Austria makes the unexpected and will play at the #WorldJuniors in Edmonton & Red Deer next season! After beat Latvia in the key game, the Austrians also won the last Div. IA game vs. Slovenia.
Recap & reactions: https://t.co/Cwn8YLaG7n
Vitali Harbatsiuk pic.twitter.com/P0tIbyQQHm
— IIHF (@IIHFHockey) December 15, 2019
Back with his Ottawa 67s when Team Austria won that Division I tourney — putting together his dominant 120-point, CHL-leading effort — even Rossi was surprised to see his country run all the way to the Division I crown. “The goal last year was that they don’t get relegated to the third group. But they played incredible hockey,” he says. “They won almost against every team, and they moved up — I was very proud of the team.”
And the young skaters who earned that trip to the bright lights of the world juniors stage will now be rewarded with a significant boost to the roster in the return of Rossi to the national team — not simply because he’s already shown the potential to one day join Thomas Vanek and Michael Grabner as the country’s all-time best NHL products, but also because he’s fresh off what he says was the best off-season of his young career.
“It has been completely different, because you have so much more time to improve your weaknesses, and your strengths even build much better,” he says of the off-ice break that was ultimately extended significantly by the sports world’s shutdown. The added time allowed Rossi and his coaches to go back to basics and work their way down the list, to improve every detail of his game and his physical fitness — an important bit of development, considering the key pillars of his game.
“For me it was very important that I improve my body. Because one of my biggest keys, why I’m that good, is because of my body,” he explains, pointing to the advantage that lies in his strength on the puck, specifically. “I just tried to be much better on that. And I think when I went back on the ice, I could feel it — like, ‘Oh, I’m much faster, I can protect the puck even much better.’ I think I improved everything.”
Stepping back on the ice in June, the 19-year-old says he’s skated nearly every day since, his latest spins around the sheet coming during a loan to Switzerland’s Zurich Lions.
All of which has set Rossi up for two pivotal career moments — the chance to make his name on the vaunted world juniors stage, and after that, his first NHL camp with the Minnesota Wild. But while the chance to crack his first NHL roster looms large, for now Rossi isn’t looking past the task at hand, and what can be gained from it.
“It’s good for us, for everyone — we can improve ourselves every time, every game,” he says of his mindset heading into the world juniors. “I’ll try just to be a leader, to make the team better, motivate. It doesn’t matter what the score is — just keep your head up and try to give every shift your best. I think you can learn a lot in those moments, because you play against the best hockey players in the world at this age.”
Skim through a few videos of the young centreman’s gruelling off-season workouts and his adoration of self-improvement becomes crystal clear. And with the chips stacked heavily against Austria when it comes to medalling, that’s the focus he and his mates should have in Edmonton, he says.
“I think the mindset shouldn’t be that we have to win against USA, I think that’s the wrong mindset,” Rossi explains. “I think the mindset should be that it doesn’t matter what the score is, we always keep going — [so] that the U.S. players, the Canadian team, that everyone else in the top group, that they know where Austria is. And that we get the respect that we should get.
“Because I think some people in USA or Canada, they don’t really know where Austria is. They think it’s maybe Australia or anything like that,” he continues with a laugh. “And I think it’s good that we can show them, that we earn their respect.”
It will also give Rossi a chance to shine among the best of his peers, to extend the dominance he showed in Ottawa all the way to Edmonton, and the world. And to give young Austrians a new name to stitch on their jerseys back home, like the one he had on his.
“Thomas Vanek, he was one of the biggest inspirations for everyone, because he was a superstar in the NHL. Everyone looked up to him, because someone from Austria went all the way to the NHL, and won superstardom,” Rossi says. “He’s our inspiration — it doesn’t matter where you’re from, you can make it. It doesn’t matter if you’re from Austria or anywhere else, just believe in yourself, in getting better, and chase your dreams.”
“That was even my mindset too. That was my motivation — ‘Okay, Thomas Vanek made it, he’s from Austria.’ That’s the same goal, to chase the dream.”
With the world watching him in Edmonton, wearing the same national team colours that his idol Vanek once did, Rossi hopes to continue to spread that message, of the value of relentless self-improvement the distance it can carry you.
“I think it’s good for smaller kids to see me, how I think, how I work, and that they know, ‘Okay, it’s not just the talent, it’s how hard you work,’” he says. “That’s what I try to give everyone, to see that it’s not just the talent, it’s how hard he works for his dream. And I think it’s very huge for small kids to understand that — that it doesn’t matter how good you are at seven, eight [years old], you’ve just got to be a hard-working kid, always getting better.
“It shouldn’t be your mindset that you train like, ‘Oh, I have to go to practice, I have to do this, I have to get up.’ If it doesn’t come from your heart, from the passion, then you’re in the wrong sport right now.”
For Rossi’s heart, his passion, the next test comes on Dec. 26 — a date with the high-flying Americans to kick things off, the hopes of a nation on his back.