Van Unen reflects on World Junior A Challenge

By on January 10, 2018
Joe Martin and Rylan Van Unen. (Photos contributed).


by Marty Hastings
Kamloops This Week

Merritt Centennials’ forward Rylan Van Unen was not invited to play for Canada West at the World Junior A Challenge to be a point producer.

In fact, the 18-year-old Kamloops product barely made it to selection camp at all.

“He doesn’t even know this, but it’s fine to say now — he was a last-minute invite to even come to camp,” said Centennials’ head coach Joe Martin, who was an assistant coach for Canada West at the tournament in Truro, N.S.

“At camp, he did the rest. I didn’t bring his name up once. The rest of the staff wanted him on the team because he finished every hit and that was missing.”

Van Unen crashed and banged his way to a gold medal, playing in each of Canada West’s five games, including a 5-1 victory over the U.S. in the final on Dec. 16.

“It was unbelievable,” said Van Unen, who has eight goals and 12 points in 26 games with the Cents in junior A B.C. Hockey League play this season. “It’s a dream growing up for every kid. To actually live it was a once in a lifetime thing.”

The two-game round-robin did not go well for Canada West, which opened with a poor performance in a 5-2 loss to the Czech Republic and finished with a 2-1 loss to the U.S.

“The coaches were telling us about two years ago, when the team was 0-2 to start [and went on to win gold],” Van Unen said. “It was just about coming together and playing through it.”

The team played well against the U.S. and had beaten Russia 4-2 in pre-tournament play, so there was reason to believe a turnaround was possible.

A day after losing to the Americans, Canada West was pitted against Canada East in a quarter-final tilt that turned out to be an epic clash.

Ross Armour scored on the power play for Canada West at 13:29 of the third period to force overtime and he tallied again 42 seconds into the extra session to send his squad to the semifinal round.

“That overtime win really brought us together,” Van Unen said. “We believed in ourselves after that, like, we can do this, kind of thing.”

Oozing confidence, Canada West steamrolled the Czech Republic 5-1 in semifinal play and had little trouble with the Stars and Stripes in the gold-medal tilt.

Van Unen did not reach the scoresheet once, except for registering a kneeing penalty against the U.S. in the quarter-final showdown, but he played his role with distinction.

“He wore down defencemen,” Martin said. “He might have only got between six and 10 shifts per game, but every shift there were one to four hits.”

The World Junior A Challenge tends to fly under the radar, with most of its national attention stolen by the World Junior Hockey Championship, but TSN carried the final, a gold-medal moment the Centennials’ twosome won’t soon forget.

“It was a bit of a roller coaster,” Van Unen said. “It was up and down with lots of emotions.

“We had to beat the U.S. after losing to them. We owed it to them.”

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