WITOSKY'S NOTEBOOK: WORLD JUNIOR CHAMPIONSHIP MEMORIES, SAM ANAS MEDIA TOUR AND MOREJan 3, 2019
By Tom Witosky
CAPTAIN CAL RETURNS
Make no mistake about it, Cal O’Reilly was happy to be back on the ice. The recently-named 2019 AHL All-Star notched two assists on Dec. 31 in his first game since Dec. 7 after sitting out with a lower-body injury.
“It’s been three weeks and obviously it is tough when it goes that long,” O’Reilly, the team’s captain, said. “It’s hard because you can’t do anything.”
O’Reilly said the most frustrating part of his absence was not being able to contribute when the team went through a dip in performance in Texas before responding with five wins in its last six contests, including a four-game winning streak.
“It’s good to see how the team bounced back and now we’ve got us back up in the standings,” he said.
The Wild kicked off 2019 with a 3-1 win in Chicago (albeit without O'Reilly, who is day-to-day) and moved into first place in the Central Division in the process. The club is projected to qualify for the playoffs for the first time in franchise history, doing so in arguably the toughest division in the league.
“You take it game by game,” the 13-year veteran center said. “The division is so tight you can’t look too far ahead because if you lose a couple you might be out of the playoff spot. That’s what happened to us last year a bit.”
However, O’Reilly said one key to success will be focusing less on the outcome of each game itself, but rather on how to execute the game plan night in and night out.
“It has to be one shift at a time really,” he said. “It’s about knowing your role and doing it to help the team win. That’s really the bottom line. The teams that play for each other are the ones at the top of the standings in April.”
He also said the team has to keep playing with speed and intensity. After all, that is what has made the team successful so far this season.
“It’s really about not thinking too much,” O’Reilly said. “You have to keep things simple and take it one game at a time or even one shift at a time. There will be nights when we don’t have it; that happens to every team in the league. But if we play consistent hockey, we will be fine.”
FOR CLUB AND COUNTRY
Immediately following Christmas, the hockey world turns some of its attention away from league play and dives into the IIHF World Junior Championship, the premier U-20 international tournament. For certain members of the Wild organization, this time of year brings back fond memories of when they participated in the competition.
A total of nine players who have suited up for Iowa this season has appeared in a World Junior Championship, representing six different countries and combining for four medals, three of which are gold. Those players are as follows:
- Defenseman Louie Belpedio – USA (2016) – Bronze
- Forward Joel Eriksson Ek – Sweden (2016 & 2017)
- Defenseman Stepan Falkovsky – Belarus (2016)
- Forward Jordan Greenway – USA (2017) – Gold
- Goaltender Kaapo Kahkonen – Finland (2016) – Gold
- Forward Luke Kunin – USA (2017) – Gold
- Defenseman Ryan Murphy – Canada (2013)
- Forward Kyle Rau – USA (2012)
- Forward Dmitry Sokolov – Russia (2018)
“I grew up watching it just like every other Canadian, so when it came time for me to take a stab at it, it was great,” defenseman Ryan Murphy said just before he was called up to Minnesota. “I was cut two times but I still wanted to make it and kept working to make it.”
Murphy’s 2013 team failed to medal in the tournament played in Ufa, Russia, but the memories are still positive.
“We came in fourth, but we had a good time. It was in Russia so that was interesting and some of the families came over to watch,” he said. “Nothing but good memories.”
For Kahkonen, the memories of helping his country to win the 2016 gold medal are strong. especially since it was held in his native homeland.
“It was awesome. I got pretty lucky to be able to play at home in front of my friends, family and all of Finland,” he said. “Winning the gold medal was even more exciting.”
Belpedio played in the same 2016 World Junior Championship for the United States, which won the bronze that year after losing to Russia in the semifinals. On the first day of the tournament, however, the US defeated Canada 4-2, with Belpedio scoring the game-winning goal with less than 4 minutes left in regulation.
“It was cool,” the Skokie, IL native said. “Kaapo got gold that year and I got bronze. Anytime you get to represent your country it is exciting and it was a lot of fun.”
The World Junior Championship also represents a family affair for Eriksson Ek. He played in two World Junior Championships for Sweden, in which he scored seven goals, and now his younger brother, Ollie, is representing their home country in the tournament. Joel Eriksson Ek said the tournament is watched closely among Swedish hockey fans.
“It’s a huge deal in Sweden,” he said. “A lot of Swedish media is there and making the team for any player is a big deal. When you are a young player, it’s a very important tournament to play in.”
The same can be said for forward Landon Ferraro. While he doesn’t have a sibling playing in the tournament, it gives him a chance to watch and listen to his father, Ray. Ray Ferraro performs color commentary for TSN Hockey in Canada and has been a fixture on the World Junior Championships for eight years.
“Dad is really happy about it being in Vancouver for the first time since he started doing it,” Landon said. “It is the first time he has been home for Christmas in years. It’s nice to have the arena just 15 minutes away from home.”
SAM THE MEDIA MAN
Forward Sam Anas took his first shot at radio color commentary when the Wild defeated the Milwaukee Admirals on Dec. 26 and then followed it up by answering questions on Twitter during an intermission in the Wild’s game on Dec. 31. Both appeared to be successes for Anas, who graduated from Quinnipiac College with a degree in business.
“I enjoyed doing color commentary,” said Anas, who is getting closer to returning to the ice following hand surgery. “I don’t know but it might be something in my future.”
Anas said he has had no previous experience in communications, a far cry from his business degree. He added though that he has always been comfortable with public speaking.
“Play-by-play looks tough,” Anas said after sitting next to Wild radio play-by-play man Joe O’Donnell. “Joe was nice to me. He would throw me a softball every now and then and I would just say something about what I saw.”