For most of their professional careers, Capitals defensemen John Carlson and Karl Alzner have been attached at the hip. Carlson, 21, and Alzner, 23, who were drafted two years apart, began their professional journeys with the Caps' American Hockey League affiliate, the Hershey Bears, developing alongside current Caps like Michal Neuvirth, Mathieu Perreault, and Jay Beagle. There, the two of them played together often, and both were huge pieces of the Hershey teams that won back to back Calder Cups in 2009 and 2010.
When they both graduated to full time NHL duty last season, they made the transition very well, playing together for a big part of the season and quickly establishing themselves as the Caps' most consistent and best defensive pairing at the NHL level. A lot of that, according to Alzner, was based on his familiarity with Carlson from playing with him in Hershey. "We didn't really start playing that good of a defensive hockey until about halfway through the year," Alzner said in October. "But we figured it out because we know each other. There's little miscommunication. It's nice to play with him, and we're very happy that we're still together."
There is one area, however, in which Carlson and Alzner will always be on opposite sides: international play. Alzner was born in Burnaby, British Columbia, a suburb of Vancouver that is a mere 20 miles north of the United States/Canada border. Carlson, on the other hand, was born in Natick, Massachusetts, a small town south of Boston.
As some of the finest young hockey players from their respective countries in their late teens, they were both selected to play in the IIHF Under-20 World Championships, colloquially known as the World Junior Championships, before they cracked the Capitals' roster. The World Juniors are one of the most widely viewed and most hotly contested Junior sporting events in the world, especially in Canada. And even though they never played against one another in the Tournament, it was an incredible experience for both of them as central members of Championship teams.
Alzner, who played for and won with Team Canada in both 2007 and 2008, was also captain of the squad his second year, on a team with current NHL superstars like Drew Doughty, Steven Stamkos, and Claude Giroux. "That's the ultimate for us," said Alzner on Thursday. "Making the NHL is one thing, but playing in World Juniors is another thing. That’s something a lot of kids look up to, playing with those guys, and even parents, you sit down and watch for a week or ten days straight. That’s the highest honor in Canada, to play for your country in hockey."
Carlson only played in one World Junior Championship, in 2010, although the experience was equally important for him. "Every time you wear that jersey it’s an honor and it’s an added level of pressure but at the same time it’s joy," he said. "It’s huge. Not many people get the chance to represent their country like that, and I was lucky to be on that team and contribute."
When Carlson says "contribute," he is referring to a performance that saw him be selected to the Tournament All-Star team while posting four goals, three assists, and a plus-8 rating in seven games. One of those goals, of course, was the game-winner in overtime of the Gold Medal game, breaking Canada's string of five consecutive World Junior titles, something which Alzner is not overly bitter about. "He scored the winning goal and stopped our streak of five in a row, it was a pretty important time and moment for him. One thing I said when he did score, if anyone on that team was going to score, I was happy that it was him.”
And though Carlson certainly gives his defensive partner and good friend a hard time about that accomplishment, he often stops short when he realizes that two is better than one. Said Alzner: "He chirps all the time but then he slowly stops, because he knows that I won twice and he only won once. So he says something and I just kind of give him a look, but he knows." His defensive partner agreed. "He has two gold medals, so you know, I don’t really talk to him too much about that," Carlson said, laughing. "It's all in good fun."
The 2012 incarnation of this tournament is scheduled to begin on December 26th, this coming Monday, and will be played in both Calgary and Edmonton, Alberta. And despite their busy schedule, the World Juniors is something that the Caps always make sure to watch not only because of their own personal ties to the tournament, but for bragging rights within the locker room. "It’s a fun tournament to watch for all of us because a lot of us have played in it and everyone’s rooting for their own country," said Carlson. "It’s a good rivalry between the guys.”