With the COVID-19 pandemic still creating havoc globally, Team Canada didn’t bring a star-studded lineup to Latvia for the IIHF men’s World Hockey Championship.
It’s a similar situation to Canada’s efforts at the 2018 Olympics, or even the Spengler Cup each year in Davos, Switzerland. When players like Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid are unavailable, you have to make do with what you have. That’s not to say Canada is a slouch by any means: the team is still a gold medal favorite and 19 of the 25 players on the roster have contributed to the over 3,000 NHL games played as a group. Even Owen Power and Cole Perfetti look to become big-time NHLers someday.
But one of the biggest benefactors to all of this is the inclusion of forward Justin Danforth. Hailing from Vityaz Podolsk of the KHL, Danforth is the only player on the team that didn’t play in North America this season and Glen Metropolit was the last forward to play on Canada after spending the season overseas back in 2006, but he already had four seasons of NHL action to his credit at the time. Danforth has never played in the NHL.
That could change in a short span. Danforth signed a one-year deal with Columbus earlier this month after a 55-point season with Vityaz, his third consecutive 50-plus point season in Europe after a dazzling two years with Luuko in Finland. Danforth previously played minor pro in the AHL and ECHL, but it never looked like an NHL career was in the cards – until now.
Danforth is no stranger to representing his country internationally. He got two cracks at the World Junior A Challenge with Canada East while he was a member of the OJHL’s Cobourg Cougars and helped Canada win gold at the 2019 Spengler Cup. In all, he has three points in 13 games for Team Canada and it’s unlikely he’ll have a big role at the World Championship, but his inclusion this year is proof that hard work pays off, even in unlikely circumstances.
“Going into the season in Russia, my expectation was to really just be an impact guy at that level,” Danforth said. “It’s not an easy league to play in, I didn’t really know what to expect.
“Once the season got going, I found some chemistry with (Kaspars) Daugavins and (Mattias) Tedenby. We started clicking and playing some really good hockey, and we were all putting up some good numbers.”
That’s when the Blue Jackets came calling. The club signed Danforth to a one-year contract, his first in the NHL at the age of 28. A few months later, he was representing Canada on the world stage for the first time in his career. A few weeks before the tournament began, Danforth got a call from Shane Doan asking if he was available to play.
“Any time you get a chance to put on put on that jersey, you take it, so it was a no-brainer for me,” Danforth said.
Danforth’s last excursion for Canada came at the 2019 Spengler Cup, the world’s oldest invitational hockey tournament based in Davos, Switzerland. It was Danforth’s first foray into the tournament, with the forward helping Canada secure gold for the fourth time in five years.
For a Canadian playing in Europe, the event was special for more than just winning gold with your country.
“I was able to fly my family down and a couple of buddies of mine, so it was nice because I don’t really get to see him throughout the season,” he said. “Having them come for the Spengler was a pretty special moment for me and my family.
“Being around those NHL vets and getting to learn from them and hear their stories was great. We won the tournament so it was icing on the cake.”
Canada’s run in Latvia this year hasn’t been as peachy as Danforth’s previous international event. Heading into the stretch run, Canada finds themselves out of a playoff spot, forcing them into a must-win situation the rest of the way. But regardless, Danforth’s experience in Riga has been positive, even with the COVID-19 restrictions leaving them in a bubble.
“Everything’s a little different. We really just kind of go to the rink and play hockey and come back here and hang out and get to know each other,” Danforth said. “Guys are playing cards and ping pong and other things that you can do inside the hotel. We’re supposed to actually get some golf in here during this trip. So that will be nice to mix it up a little bit, but it’s been a good time.”
Once the tournament ends, the focus shifts to making the Blue Jackets out of camp. Making the NHL as an older rookie is always a challenge, but going to a team that’s going to get a major facelift during the off-season, there’s a chance for Danforth to make an impact. And he’s excited to show the fans what he’s capable of.
“I play gritty hockey, I don’t quit on plays,” Danforth said. “I skate hard. Even as a smaller guy, I still try to play physical and I play the game with a lot of speed.”
Danforth may be getting a second chance at building a North American pro career, but it’s really his first chance to prove what he can do at the top level. He’s ready for the challenge.