It’s that time of year again, hockey fans. Time to get together with family, eat copious amounts of food and cheer your country on in the World Junior Hockey Championships. The WJHC has become a holiday tradition for many Canadian families and has given us plenty of memorable moments over the years that are etched in our country’s hockey lore. With that being said, I’d like to revisit a particular year of the tournament that will live forever in infamy among Toronto Maple Leafs fans.
In the 2006 WJHC, the Maple Leafs had two top-notch goaltending prospects on display in Vancouver: Justin Pogge and Tuukka Rask. Pogge was drafted in the third round by the Leafs in 2004 and was building a reputation as one of the best goalies in the Canadian Hockey League with the Calgary Hitmen. Pogge was named starter for Team Canada and lead the team to its second of five straight gold medals. Pogge was absolutely brilliant during the tourney, posting three shutouts and an airtight 1.00 goals-against-average in six games, all Canadian wins.
Rask was considered a better prospect at the time than Pogge after being drafted in the first
round, 21st overall in 2005. Rask led an overachieving Finland team to a surprise bronze medal, beating Phil Kessel and the Americans 4-2 in the third-place game. Rask turned heads with a 53-save shutout in a 1-0 overtime win over Sweden in the quarterfinals, and was named the tournament’s top goaltender.
Pogge was able to build on his World Junior performance, finishing the year with 38 wins, a 1.72 GAA and a .926 save percentage with Calgary in the Western Hockey League. At the end of the season he was named the CHL goaltender of the year. The rapid development of Pogge was a big reason why John Ferguson Jr., the Leafs general manager at the time, felt comfortable trading Rask to the Boston Bruins for Andrew Raycroft.
The rest, as they say, is history. Pogge never panned out, playing only seven games for the Leafs in four seasons before being flipped to the Anaheim Ducks in 2009 for a conditional draft pick. He hasn’t seen a second of NHL action since then, bouncing around minor league teams, and is now a member of the Phoenix Coyotes. He’s currently plying his craft in Italy during the lockout.
Rask, on the other hand, has been one of the NHL’s most consistent goalies over the past four seasons, despite playing backup to Tim Thomas for the Bruins. However, Rask was set to take over the starter’s job with Thomas taking a one-year sabbatical this season, but obviously the lockout has put that plan on hold. Either way, the Leafs are likely to see Rask shutting down their forwards for years to come.
Obviously, John Ferguson Jr. made the wrong move choosing Pogge over Rask, but since JFJ’s failures have been well documented over the years, I don’t feel the need to beat a dead horse here. But let the Pogge vs. Rask debate serve as a warning for Brian Burke and current Leafs’ management not to put too much stock in this silly little tournament. Sure, it’s a great opportunity to see some of the best junior players in the world play against each other at a high level, but that doesn’t mean they’re all going to make it to The Show. For every Kris Letang, Jonathan Toews, or Marc Staal who became NHL all-stars from that 2006 Canadian team, there’s a Pogge, Dan Bertram, or Sasha Pokulok who never realized their potential.
So this holiday season, enjoy the time off work, the time with family and, most of all, the hockey. But if the play of Leafs prospect Garret Sparks has you anointing him the second coming of Jacques Plante, take a deep breath, drink a cold beverage and remember the Ghosts of World Juniors Past.