MONTREAL – Representing Canada at the World Junior Hockey Championships is something every teenaged hockey star dreams of and only a select few get to do. Martin Lapointe got his chance to don the maple leaf not once, but three times.
Lighting up the league from his first day in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, the Ville Saint-Pierre native put on a show every time he laced up his skates, turning a few heads over at Team Canada headquarters in the process. Despite preferring to call on 18 and 19-year-olds for the tournament, the Canadian coaching staff saw something special in the 17-year-old Lapointe heading into the 1991 WJC in Saskatoon.
“In ’91, I was playing with guys who were all older than me so I didn’t really get much ice time during that tournament,” recalled the Canadiens’ new director of player development. “My role was to play on the fourth line, but it was still one of the best experiences I had in Junior. Playing with older guys can be a little intimidating but it was a lot of fun.”
One of the Laval Titan’s leading scorers heading into the holiday tournament, Lapointe had to adapt to a new role and a new reality with Team Canada. With six returning players on the roster, many of the team’s budding young stars had to take on different levels of responsibility – and ice time – than they were used to.
“I was on the fourth line with Brad May and Dale Craigwell and we knew our role. But whenever I had a chance to play, I made sure to make the most of it,” mentioned Lapointe, who finished with three points in six games at the championships that year. “You have to learn to accept whatever role you’re given and do your job. When you start trying to change your role, that’s when you start messing with team chemistry.”
Given his sporadic ice time, Lapointe had the best seat in the house to watch one of the most memorable goals in tournament history. Facing off against the USSR, who needed a tie or better in the final game to win gold, Canada knew their final game was a must-win.
“I’ll never forget it. In that last game, our line hadn’t played since around the start of the third period,” admitted Lapointe, recalling the last-second goal by John Slaney to clinch a gold medal for Canada that year. “We were holding hands on the bench, knowing we weren’t going to play and we absolutely needed a win. I was pumped; I felt like Superman on the bench!
“There was added pressure on us because we were playing in Canada and we didn’t want to let our fans down,” he added. “Just thinking about it now gives me goosebumps and I wasn’t even playing!”
The passion and dedication Lapointe showed in 1991 – in addition to his deft scoring touch – earned him another invite to represent Canada the following Christmas. The tournament turned out to be a disaster for young Canadian squad, led by Eric Lindros, who returned from Germany nursing a sixth-place finish.
But Lapointe had an opportunity to erase that disappointment from his memory in 1993. After spending the beginning of the season in the NHL with the Red Wings, the 19-year-old veteran returned to his Junior team so he could be eligible to wear another familiar red and white jersey one last time – with one slight alteration: the addition of a “C” stitched above the maple leaf.
“The fact that we finished sixth in 1992 helped me. It taught me what it takes to win. I had the opportunity to be the captain in 1993 which gave me a chance to be part of the process of building cohesion on the team,” explained Lapointe, who is one of just seven players to ever compete in three World Juniors for Canada.
“We had guys like Alexandre Daigle and Martin Gendron who were such great Junior players,” he continued. “They were used to being the best players on their teams so I tried to help them understand that there’s nothing wrong with being on the fourth line. It was a new situation for them but they accepted the role because of the leadership we had on the team that year.”
Facing some tough opposition in the host Swedish squad, including teenage phenoms Peter Forsberg and Markus Naslund who re-wrote the tournament record books that year, Canada need a whole team effort to be successful. With depth at every position, head coach Perry Pearn led the team to a near-perfect performance, putting together a 6-1-0 record in seven games. Despite owning an identical record, the Swedes’ only loss came at the hands of the Canadians, giving Lapointe a chance to cap his WJC career at the top of the podium.
“1993 was special for me not just because I was the captain but because everyone contributed along the way,” underlined Lapointe, who led Canada with five goals and nine points en route to the gold medal. “We never knew who would be the goal scorers in any given game. It’s not an individual tournament. The Swedes were the favorites with Forsberg and Naslund, especially since we were playing them on their home ice. But you don’t win a tournament like that with two or three guys.”
Having grown from each of his World Junior experiences, Lapointe launched an impressive NHL career that saw him hoist the Stanley Cup twice in his 14 seasons. While nothing compares to winning hockey’s ultimate prize, he still holds a special place in his heart for those memories representing Canada for three straight years.
“When you’re in Junior, everyone is in the same boat,” he shared. “No one is making money and everyone has the same goal: win a gold medal for your country.”
Hugo Fontaine is a writer for canadiens.com. Translated by Shauna Denis.
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