Justin Pogge during much happier times.

Flipping through the interwebs and taking a leisurely trip down World Juniors memory lane is akin to stumbling on an old high school yearbook while doing some house cleaning. It’s always depressing to look back on those straight A students who fizzled out and now sign off on your rented movies.

In the real world, the hope of youth is often crushed quickly by reality, and the same can be said for hockey. The junior stars we’ll see when the puck drops on Boxing Day are the most elite players in the 2010 class. Most have been drafted, and others have general managers clamouring for their services.

But oh, how quickly that house of cards can come crashing down. It’s clear that there are different sets of expectations for the different tiers of junior stars. A hockey playing monkey knew Sidney Crosby would achieve superstardom when he laced up the skates for Team Canada in 2004 as a 16-year-old. Ditto for Taylor Hall last year.

It’s those middle tier players who impressed us on the world stage, and then faded into the nether regions of hockeydom that are far more compelling. It’s these players that make the World Junior tournament so intriguing, and they’re the answer to many questions in the Big Book of Hockey Trivia that’s sitting over your toilet. And it’s these players who were my mission.

To compile this World Juniors “Where are they now?” list, I journeyed into a world where no Leaf fan should ever go, spending an unhealthy amount of time looking at past Ukrainian hockey rosters. Careening through the annals of World Junior history over the past 20 years, the ghost of tournament past led me into a dark place. Soon, the names that washed up on the rough shores of pro hockey mounted, but I couldn’t look away. I was in too deep.

Narrowing this list down to five was a tough task. A simple criteria was followed, and players had to fit into one of two categories:

  • Players who performed well in the World Junior tournament to raise expectations, and then failed at the next level.
  • Highly touted prospects who–regardless of their World Junior performance–took a swift fall off of the professional hockey cliff.
  • Another side note: The focus is Team Canada, but one flameout from another country is tossed in.

World Juniors: Where are they now?

Justin Pogge

World Juniors team: Canada (2006)

Position: Goalie

NHL Draft: 90th overall pick in 2004 (Toronto Maple Leafs)

Justin Pogge wasn’t even invited to Team Canada’s summer camp prior to the 2006 World Junior tournament in Vancouver, so little was expected when he arrived at Canada’s selection camp the followed December. All he did was post three shutouts–including a 5-0 win in the gold medal game over Russia–and finish with a 1.00 GAA.

Pogge was incredible, making the most acrobatic saves look routine. The previous season he had won the CHL’s Goaltender of the Year award while playing for the Calgary Hitmen. Combined with Tuukka Rask, Leafs Nation was giddy about the team’s future between the pipes.

Fast forward four years, and Pogge is starting for the esteemed Charlotte Checkers, the Carolina Hurricanes’ AHL affiliate, after also spending time in the Anaheim Ducks system. Brian Burke pulled the plug on the Pogge project after he started just seven games with the big club, and won 26 games with the Marlies.

John Slaney

World Juniors team: Canada (1991)

Position: Defence

NHL draft: 9th overall pick in 1990 (Washington Capitals)

There’s Paul Henderson, there’s Sidney Crosby, and then there’s John Slaney. Alright, maybe that’s a mild exaggeration, and Slaney’s overtime goal to beat the Russians and win the 1991 World Junior tournament is close, but doesn’t quite belong in the same sentence as the winners by Crosby and Henderson.

But it was still kind of a big deal, and the good ol’ Newfoundland boy remains a sports legend in his home province. Unfortunately, one heroic moment doesn’t automatically translate into success at the next level. Over 17 professional seasons Slaney has pinballed between seven NHL teams, unable to ever establish a firm hold on a roster spot. Slaney played the most games of his career during the 1997-98 season, when he appeared in 55 games for the Coyotes and scored 17 points.

Still holding onto his career, Slaney is the AHL’s leading scorer among defenceman. If you’re ever in Germany and want to cross some former junior stars off your list between pints of Weizenbier, stop by to see the Frankfurt Lions of the Deutsche Eishockey Liga. You’ll see Slaney patrolling the blueline.

Marty Murray

World Juniors team: Canada (1994 and 1995)

Position: Centre

NHL draft: 96th overall pick by the Calgary Flames (1993)

While we were all infatuated with Jordan Eberle’s penchant for last second heroics over the past two years, Marty Murray’s name was routinely glossed over. Eberle’s 23 points over his two World Junior appearances for Canada surpassed Murray’s 19 in his two outings, but Murray remains one of Canada’s most productive players at the tournament.

He was named the WHL’s player of the year while starring for the Brandon Wheat Kings in 1994-95, a year in which Murray scored 40 goals and 128 points. Murray now joins a long line of players who saw their careers peak at junior hockey’s highest stage.

Hockey  has led Murray to both sides of the Atlantic, and to four NHL teams. He’s played in just 261 NHL games, and can now be seen where only the best American hops and barley are found, playing for the AHL’s Milwaukee Admirals.

Alyn McCauley

World Junior team: Canada (1996 and 1997)

Position: Centre

NHL draft: 79th overall pick by the New Jersey Devils (1995)

Take a moment to step into the hockey time machine of broken dreams. You see, the players in other stops so far in our adventure through the World Junior yearbook are at least holding onto a shred of a hockey career, or had the good fortune of never really having a hope at an NHL career.

Yes, you read that correctly. I wrote “good fortune,” and I meant it. Speak for yourself, but I’d rather have my hopes dashed nice and early (i.e. Pogge) than be consistently derailed by injuries that robbed a once promising career of its potential. This is the tale of Alyn McCauley, who won gold with Canada at the World Juniors in 1996 and 1997, scoring 10 points over 13 games.

Leafs fans are very familiar with Mr. McCauley, who was one of the players coming back from the swamp in the key trade sending local hockey hercules Doug Gilmour to New Jersey. During that 1997 trade, the Leafs shipped Gilmour to the Devils along with Dave Ellet and a third round pick for McCauley, defenceman Jason Smith, and forward Steve Sullivan. McCauley was the prized prospect of the deal, and had been named the CHL’s Player of the Year after scoring 56 goals and 112 points for the Ottawa 67′s in 1996-97. Legendary 67′s coach Brian Kilrea, who sent many all-stars to the next level, once called McCauley the best player he’s ever coached.

McCauley played only one full, 82-game season during his six years in the blue-and-white. The Leafs finally grew impatient during their 2003 playoff push and dealt McCauley to San Jose at the trade deadline as part of the Owen Nolan deal. Once again, the hockey Gods weren’t smiling on Toronto, and the following season with the Sharks McCauley’s only 20-goal season, and the most productive season in McCauley’s career.

McCauley has now retired from hockey. He spent time as an assistant coach with the Queen’s Golden Gaels men’s hockey team, before moving on to become a scout for the Los Angeles Kings.

Pavel Brendl

World Junior team: Czech Republic (2001)

Position: right wing

NHL draft: 4th overall pick in the 1999 draft (New York Rangers)

Websters dictionary defines the word “enigma” as an “inscrutable or mysterious person.” The great dictionary of hockey has a much more simple definition: Pavel Brendl.

Brendl’s NHL career flatlined due to a lack of effort, a tragic end for a player selected at such a lofty draft position. After jumping the pond to join the Calgary Hitmen in 1998, Brendl made an immediate splash, scoring 78 goals during his first season playing North American hockey. He was cut from the Czech Republic World Junior team in his first tryout, but Brendl cracked the lineup in his second attempt. Winning gold with the Czechs in 2001, Brendl was named the tournament’s best forward after scoring four goals and 10 points.

With Brendl, it was always a question of attitude, an attitude that led him to never play a single game for the Rangers. His habit of reporting to camp out of shape and ignoring the offensive system being preached by coaches led to Brendl’s departure from broadway.

Brendl was part of the trade that saw Eric Lindros leave Philadelphia, and he continued to be a massive disappointment with the Flyers. After two seasons he moved on to Carolina, and scored only 11 goals and 22 points over 78 NHL games.

Surfacing in Russia, Brendl scored 35 goals for Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod last year, the ultimate tongue twister team in the KHL.