Dwayne Norris was driving from the family home north of Detroit to Buffalo earlier this week – he had to take the long way around, through Ohio and Pennsylvania rather than cross the border in Windsor and Fort Erie, Ont. because his oldest son forgot his passport; get Dwayne started on that – when he got to thinking about his world junior hockey experience.
Hard to believe it’s been 27 years since Norris, then a college hockey star at Michigan State University, was a surprise addition to the 1990 Canadian national junior team, a squad which featured the likes of a 16-year-old Eric Lindros, Mike Ricci and Dave Chyzowski, who was the second overall pick in the NHL Draft the previous June.
There were bigger players at camp, and certainly players carrying even bigger hockey credentials.
At the time, the world junior championship was just beginning to become a popular holiday tradition, though nothing like it is today, and Norris, from St. John’s, was the first Newfoundlander to make the national junior team.
Coach Guy Charron, facing big pressure after Canada placed fourth in the 1989 world juniors in Alaska, saw something in Norris, the diminutive, skillful speedster.
Charron’s hunch would pay off.
Skating on the team's top line with Chyzowski and Ricci, Norris helped Canada get off to a quick 4-0-1 start in the round-robin tournament held in Turku and Helsinki, Finland.
The only fly in the ointment came in a 5-4 loss to the Swedes in Canada’s second-last round-robin game.
That set up a bit of a twist for the final day of competition.
In order to win gold, Canada needed a victory over Czechoslovakia coupled with a win or tie by the Swedes over the Soviet Union. That would leave Canada and the U.S.S.R. locked at 11 points apiece in the standings, but because Canada had beaten the Soviets earlier in the tournament, Canada would win the gold medal.
It was in the third period when news arrived at the Canadian bench: Swedish wunderkind Mats Sundin scored with one second to go in regulation time to give the Swedes a 5-5 tie with the Soviets.
If Canada managed to stop the Czechs, the gold medal was Canada's.
Robert Reichel beat Stephane Fiset in the first-period for a 1-0 lead. In the second, Mike Craig knotted things up.
Then, with 2:57 to go in the second, Norris gave Canada its first lead.
A right-handed shot playing the left side, Norris was driving to the net when a juicy rebound landed on his stick. Norris swatted the puck with his backhand and it slipped past the goalie and into the net.
For the rest of the second period and all through the third, Canada shut down Jaromir Jagr and the Czechs. Late in the game, Charron tapped Norris to hop the boards. Then with 31 seconds left, Norris made the mistake of icing the puck, forcing a faceoff in the Canadian zone.
Rather than haul the Newfoundlander off the ice, Charron stayed with Norris.
Canada won the faceoff, got the puck in the Czech zone and Norris skated like a "son of a bitch," forcing the play.
And then the final buzzer, which must have sounded like Christmas bells.
Of course, that’s ancient history now, though Norris, now 47, is reminded often, with his jersey framed and hanging in his downstairs rec room at home in Oxford, Mich., next to the jersey he wore when Canada won the silver medal at the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics.
Norris would be drafted after the 1990 world juniors, in the seventh round by the Quebec Nordiques.
He would finish his degree at Michigan State, play in the Olympics, star in the American Hockey League, appear in 20 NHL games with Quebec and the Anaheim Ducks, before heading overseas and 11 seasons in the German league with Frankfurt and Cologne.
And so, here it is, 27 years later and Norris was headed to Buffalo and the 2018 world juniors where his son, Josh, was poised to make his world junior debut.
Imagine that. Dwayne Norris has a boy in the IIHF world junior championship. What’s more, he’s a member of the United States team.
All three of Dwayne and Traci’s sons – Coale is a freshman hockey player at Ferris State University and Dalton plays for the U16 AAA Oakland Grizzlies back in Michigan – are born in the States (the parents have lived in Michigan since Dwayne’s university days, returning there in the off-season whilst in Europe).
Josh Norris is 18, one of only a handful of 1999-born players in the U.S. squad. A freshman at the University of Michigan – the bitter rivalry of his father’s alma mater – Norris was drafted in the first round, 19th overall, by the San Jose Sharks last June.
This WJC is not the younger Norris’s first international assignment. He won a gold medal with the U.S. National Team Development Program’s U18 squad earlier this year, and played for the States at the 2015 World U17 Hockey Challenge.
“You know in life how quickly things can go by,” Norris said from Buffalo Wednesday morning. “I was thinking about that driving up here, and how surreal it is to have Josh in the same tournament.”
It was a stressful time, not only for the son but the father, too, during the selection process for the U.S. team. Dwayne remembers what it was like at the 1990 junior team's pre-Christmas camp in Ottawa. He recalls dressing for the team's first two exhibition games, and then appeared in only one of the squad's next four exhibitions.
“There are 10 (NHL) first rounders on the (U.S.) team, and they had Josh, who’s a natural centre, on the right wing even though he’s a left shot,” Norris said.
“He’s never played wing before, and it’s hard enough to make a team like that at your natural position. So you know the stresses the players are going through, and you naturally feel them, too.
“You know what’s on the line, and how much they want it.”
Wearing No. 9 – his father wore No. 10 in Helsinki – Norris made his WJC debut Tuesday night in a 9-0 U.S. win over Denmark. Skating on a line with Max Jones and Trent Fredric, a pair of 2016 first-round NHL draft picks (Anaheim and Boston), the trio are expected to play a physical, tough-to-play against roll with the stars and stripes.
Having been down the road before, the father offered some sage advice to the son: being merely okay in camp is not good enough.
“We had the conversation … that, you know, don’t just be along for the ride,” Norris said.
As a hockey player growing up in Canada, wearing the maple leaf meant everything to Dwayne Norris. It’s his proudest moments – that and playing in the NHL, of course – so even he admits it’s different watching the boys wear American jerseys.
But on the other hand, maybe it’s not that different.
They’ve all played in the U.S. program coming up through, and the two oldest have had friends play for the American teams at the past couple of world junior championships.
And, Dwayne adds, the U.S. National Team Development Program, which is based out of Plymouth, Mich., is doing a, “fantastic job.”
The United States Hockey League, a Tier I junior circuit in which Coale, the oldest, played, is a going concern, one which will probably rival the Canadian Hockey League (which encompasses the Western Hockey League, Ontario Hockey League and Quebec Major Junior Hockey League in Canada). And nobody will ever convince Norris that Canadian major junior hockey is a better option than an athletic scholarship at an NCAA Division I university.
As for the present, Norris is looking forward to Friday’s Canada-U.S. outdoor showdown at New Era Field, home to the NFL’s Buffalo Bills.
“It’s stressful … you’re jittery,” he said, “and you can’t do anything about it. At least as a player, you can control those things.”
He proved that back 27 years ago in Finland.