Article by Ryan Sinclair
For Victoria Royals forward Keanu Derungs, competing in the 2021 IIHF World Junior Championship was a truly memorable experience. The 18-year-old native of Ilanz, Switzerland represented his country as he suited up for Switzerland’s National Junior Team for the tournament, which was held in Edmonton, AB this year.
While the games did not go the way the Swiss had hoped, the fact that it has been successfully held amid a global pandemic has been a major positive in a year of hockey disappointments. For Derungs personally, playing at such a high level against world-class opponents was another step in the progression of his hockey career.
“It’s obviously a huge honour to always wear the Swiss colors,” said Derungs. “To go out there and play with your teammates and represent our country. Definitely a huge honor and always a lot of fun.”
The Tournament Experience
As Victoria fans know well after being co-hosts of the championship in 2019, the event has a reputation of a fun-filled showcase for fans to see the best young hockey talent in the world. This year, however, was unlike all others, with no fans in attendance and strict safety guidelines in place. For Derungs, the extra measures took a little bit to get used to.
“At first it was a little bit weird the first game with no fans,” recalled Derungs of the empty arena. “They had the sound of the crowd in the arena, so there was a little bit of sound there.”
While fans provide support and energy, the significance of the tournament was all the motivation the players needed. “Usually with fans at the games, you see them and hear them, but you don’t really focus on them. It is nice to have fans and it also helps to get the emotions going, but once it starts, it’s just like any other game.”
Life in the Bubble
Outside of the games, life in the bubble was filled with activities. “Four days at the start we had to be in quarantine. They were tough to get through, but we tried to stay fit. Our athletic trainer did a good job with that. In the morning we had mobility and stretching, then a workout at lunchtime. And then in the afternoon we had a little bit of cardio. So that was good.”
Outside of the workouts, the players made the most of the time at the hotel. “We got to spend time playing video games against each other, and that was fun. Also, we played some cards and table tennis to stay occupied. But we were limited, either you’re at the rink or at the hotel.”
This year’s tournament came with the added logistics of keeping players and those involved safe during a global pandemic. Despite the concern leading up to the competition, it appears the International Ice Hockey Federation have pulled off a successful and healthy event.
The preparation for the trip to Edmonton started back in Switzerland for Derungs and his teammates. “We were in a camp earlier in Switzerland and had to already be in a bubble. We did not have any personal contact with anyone except people from the team. The whole time we were wearing masks, except when we were on the ice and when we were having our meals. It was really good, we felt safe and nothing negative happened in the end.”
Switzerland faced some tough opponents in Group A of the competition. The team suffered losses to Slovakia, Finland, Canada, and Germany.
Their final match against Germany was likely their best. A wild finish saw the Swiss score four goals in the third period, including two in the final two minutes with their goaltender pulled for an extra attacker. The comeback fell just short however, as Germany hung on for the 5-4 win.
“We wanted to get a medal,” said Derungs. “That was our goal. It was disappointing at first, but it is something to build on. We didn’t have a lot of returning players from last year. So, next year we will have an even better chance to get a medal. We will be better, I know that.”
The experience will only help to strengthen the young Swiss team. “When you play against the best Under-20 players in the world, you can really learn from that. It was high level games.”
A Family History of International Play
Playing for Switzerland in the 2021 IIHF WJC was a high point thus far in Derungs’ international hockey career. Previous experience includes playing for the Swiss Under-16 and Under-17 teams in various tournaments. He also played for Switzerland at the 2020 Hlinka Gretzky Cup, where he put up a goal and two points in four games.
Interestingly, Derungs is not the only member of his immediate family to play for the Swiss Under-20 team. His father Thomas played in 1990-91 and his brother, Ian, represented the team in 2018-19. Both were obviously incredibly happy for Keanu.
“They were happy and proud. I have to thank them. My dad has helped me a lot. And over the summer I got to spend some time with my brother too, as I was living at his house. I learned a lot from him as he played in the same league as me this season in Switzerland. He is always working hard, and I really appreciate his tips on what to do.”
Representing the Royals
In his first season in the Western Hockey League, Derungs was the Victoria Royals’ rookie of the year in 2019-20 after scoring 15 goals and 29 points in 57 games. His performance has him rising quickly as a fan favorite, and many tuned in to watch him represent his country.
“It means a lot to see the support from Victoria fans. It was huge and it really gave me a boost. I wanted to give something back, I didn’t quite get it. But I will get it next year.”
With his appearance in the WJC, Derungs is the fourth Royals player to represent his country. Joe Hicketts won gold with Canada in 2015 and placed sixth in 2016. Igor Martynov represented Belarus in 2018 and Phillip Schultz played twice for Denmark.
Memories for Life
The 2021 IIHF World Junior Championship was a unique event that will be remembered for many reasons, primarily the uncertainty around the safety of the players to compete during unprecedented times. For Derungs, the experience will hold memories for life.
“I will always remember being with the team, seeing them be so disciplined with all the protocols to follow. We knew we had to do it, and the team got it done. We did it as a team and that really helped us get closer.”
“And the last game versus Germany. The last 10 minutes we scored a couple goals, and it was really huge. It was nice to see the team get together. If perhaps we had gotten together a little bit earlier in the tournament, it would have ended differently. But in the end, it was really nice to see what a team can achieve if we all work together perfectly.”