Jordan Kawaguchi remembered the feeling.
He remembered twice going into a meeting with the coaching staff and being told it wasn’t his year, that he wouldn’t be wearing the red and white of Canada West at the World Junior A Challenge.
It wasn’t going to happen a third time.
This time around, in his last year of eligibility, the 19-year-old made his Team Canada dreams a reality, finally earning a spot on the roster as one of the 22 best from the CJHL’s five western leagues.
“[Your mind] starts racing. Your heart starts racing. You have a big smile on your face,” Kawaguchi says of being told by head coach Barry Wolff that he was making the trip to Bonnyville. “There aren’t many things that can compete with that feeling. I’m just really fortunate that I was able to do it this year.”
The Abbotsford, B.C., native has long been an impact player with the Chilliwack Chiefs of the B.C. Hockey League. In his fourth season with the Chiefs, Kawaguchi – who wears the ‘C’ in the Fraser Valley – finished third in the league with 45 goals last year, and finds himself among the top five in league scoring this season.
He has also been clutch in the playoffs, co-leading the league postseason scoring last spring and helping the Chiefs to back-to-back Mainland Division championships, as well as a spot in the BCHL final in 2016.
But when it was time for selection camp, something always seemed to be missing.
“The last few years I came in, maybe didn’t perform at my best at camp, but that’s how it goes. They had a lot of players come to camp, and they picked the best ones they felt were going to help them win a championship.”
Last season, they did just that. Canada West, led by a trio of first-round NHL draft picks (Tyson Jost, Dante Fabbro and Dennis Cholowski) claimed its fourth World Junior A Challenge gold medal in Cobourg, Ont., and all Kawaguchi could do was watch from home.
“Anytime you watch a team that you could have made win a championship it’s tough to watch, but I was really happy for those guys,” he says. “I have a lot of good buddies that played on the team, and they did really well.”
But Kawaguchi knew how close he was to being a part of that team, and he knew he had one last shot.
He was in tough; teams at the World Junior A Challenge can only have five 19-year-olds on their roster, and with 2015 gold medallists Joseph Nardi and Kyle Betts back for another year, Kawaguchi was one of 18 1997-born players competing for three spots.
“My third time coming into camp, if I didn’t make it I knew that was it. I had a lot of nerves coming into camp, but playing with Nardi and [returnee Carter] Turnbull made me comfortable right off the bat, and the nerves calmed down a little bit.”
So what finally did it for Kawaguchi? What was it that made it impossible for the coaches to ignore him?
“His ability to score big goals at the right time, in big moments,” says Wolff, who sees Kawaguchi often during the BCHL season. “When Chilliwack is down, he’s the guy out there creating an opportunity.
“He’s just a big-time, big-game player. I’ve seen it plenty. He just came to camp focused, and battled. He deserves [his spot on the roster], no doubt about that.”
The University of North Dakota commit didn’t waste any time proving his coach right; he was arguably the best Canada West forward in a pre-tournament win over the United States, finishing with a goal and an assist, and added a goal and two helpers against Switzerland in the tournament opener.
The key for Kawaguchi is keeping it simple, and not changing his approach from the BCHL to the international game.
“I think I just keep doing what I’m doing. I pride myself on doing the little things, and let the other stuff come,” he says. “Coach Wolff wanted me to do what I do in Chilliwack; if that’s scoring goals, then I’ll score goals, and if he wants me to play on a checking line, I’ll play on a checking line.
“Whatever it takes.”