Taking to the ice in the IIHF World Junior Championship can serve as a milestone in a hockey player’s career, singling them out among the top junior players and pitting them against hockey talent from around the globe.
Matthew Verboon, forward with the Salmon Arm Silverbacks, had the chance to play as a part of Team Switzerland in the 2019 World Juniors, building his confidence as a young hockey hopeful and giving him a memorable experience.
“It was a good experience, it was pretty surreal to play in the Rogers Arena in front of that many fans,” he says. “It gives you confidence, it gave me a lot of confidence coming out of that arena afterwards. I think the first period of our fun game against Canada sort of shocked me at the level of play, but once you get used to it you realize you can play with these guys.”
Verboon, a dual Canadian-Swiss citizen who moved to Salmon Arm from Geneva in August of 2018 to make a name for himself in junior hockey outside of Switzerland, has carved a place for himself on the Silverbacks’ bench this season as a high-scoring forward, remaining top-scorer for several weeks. The World Juniors were not his first major junior hockey tournament – having played for Switzerland in the U18 World Championship in Russia in 2018 – though he says the World Juniors held more prestige for him.
While he grew up in Geneva, Verboon has some deep family roots in Canada, being born in Ontario where both his parents are originally from. His time in Salmon Arm with the Silverbacks is his first experience living in Canada since he was just four months old, though he says he has always looked up to the level of hockey in Canada.
“The Canadian junior team was something I always watched when I was little, every Canadian hockey fan follows and watches them. The Swiss had a few years where they had some good runs, but never did anything big, so I would always support the Canadian team because they are the winning team. Playing against them was really surreal, and having a close game was really nice,” he says.
Going into the World Juniors, Verboon said he was just focusing on what he could do for the team rather than how he could make himself shine.
“I think originally, being one of the youngest guys on the team and not knowing what my role would be, I originally just wanted to make the team. And from there I got a bit of time on the power-play and penalty kill, and just did my job and helped the team win,” he says.
Verboon and Team Switzerland shocked many with their performance at the World Juniors, tallying up some wins and very close games against top tournament contenders, making it through to the semi-finals and playing for the bronze medal against Russia. Though the team came just short of making the finals, Verboon says he is more than pleased with the results.
“I think we exceeded everyone’s expectations, honestly,” he says. “Even if we had not won the quarter-finals, we had tight games against Czech and took it into overtime, we had a 3-2 game against Canada that could have gone either way, even Russia for the most part the game was close. I think we were sort of the underdogs in the tournament, but we proved we can play with everyone and shocked Sweden when we beat them. So it was cool and I think we played really well and at a high level.”
Their performance in the tournament aside, for Verboon another highlight of the competition was the chance for his parents to come to Canada and watch his games at the World Juniors. He also had high praise for the coaching and skills sessions that were put on by Team Switzerland.
Now that he’s back in Salmon Arm, and the Silverbacks are right back into the regular season after a holiday break, Verboon is excited to see what a boost in confidence and a trial-by-fire against the top junior hockey talent in the world can do for his game.
“I am excited! It has been a while since I have played with them, coming back to practice you are like, yea it is still a pretty high level over here, which prepared me well for the World Juniors. I am excited to get back on the ice and see how the end of the season goes,” he says.
For his first games back on the ice with the Silverbacks, Verboon and the rest of the team will be facing the Vernon Vipers Jan. 11, the Powell River Kings Jan. 12 and the Nanaimo Clippers Jan. 13. The game against the Vipers is the last time these two teams will face off this season, and a victory will give the Silverbacks a perfect 6-0 sweep of their local rivals.