The World Junior Hockey Championships have quickly become one of the favourite non-NHL hockey tournaments on the hockey schedule. In fact some fans will tell you that it is the most exciting hockey you'll see all season long prior to the start of the Stanley Cup finals.
We watch these kids playing their hearts out and we become instant fans of theirs. They don't get paid, they are there for their country and because they are chasing a dream - a dream that many of us have dreamed for as well but came nowhere close to fulfilling it - we live vicariously through them for a couple of weeks each season.
As we watch the excitement on television, often staying up (or getting up!) at the wee hours of the morning if the tournament is held in Europe, we develop instant favourites, and we follow them throughout the rest of their career. Many never become much of a professional player once they reach that stage, but some do.
We don't just become fans of our home countries' players either. Often we are drawn to a great player on another team. Though he is the enemy for this short tournament, we become fans of them too.
One of the best examples of an instant fan favourites from the past WJC tournaments is Swiss goaltending sensation Pauli Jaks.
If you look at his stats at the 1991 championships, you would probably scoff. Thirty goals against in five games for 6.00 GAA. Only one win.
What you have to remember about the "A" Pool at the WJC is that there are always two weak sisters combined with hockey's perennial super powers - Russia, Canada, Sweden, USA, Finland and Czech Republic. Switzerland battled Norway in 1991 for the 7th spot of the 8 team pool. The 8th place team would be relegated back to the "B" Pool the following year.
Switzerland had never been a power in hockey. Only recently has their hockey program improved. Everyone expected the powerful Russians and Canadians to run over the lowly Swiss, running up the score well into double digits.
But while that Swiss team was very weak (they only scored 5 goals in 7 games, while giving up 48), goalie Pauli Jaks became a fan favourite, and stole the show in that tournament.
The tall netminder stood on his head and was a one man show throughout the tournament. So what if he gave up an average of 6 goals a game. That's tremendously respectable considering the quality chances against him outnumbered goals surrendered 5 or 6 times most nights. In one game against Canada, with mighty Eric Lindros among others, everyone was expecting a blowout, But Jaks stood on his head and kept the score very respectable. It was Jaks who was almost single-handily kept the Swiss from finishing last.
Jaks superb play did not go unnoticed either. Despite inflated stats that normally would get him overlooked, he was named to the 1991 WJC All Star team and was named the best goalie of the 1991 WJC. The NHL noticed Jaks for the first time too. Scouts began to watch Jaks more closely. Come summer time, the Los Angeles Kings selected the Swiss goalie 108th overall in the 1991 Entry Draft.
Jaks remained in Switzerland to play for two more years, and was once again part of the Swiss WJC contingent in 1992. The Swiss team was somewhat stronger this year, scoring 23 goals - more goals for than Germany, Finland and even mighty Canada, who only managed to score 19 times. However the Swiss were still very weak in their own zone, surrendering a tournament high 44 goals. Jaks couldn't duplicate his magic of a year earlier. It wasn't that he played poorly exactly, he just didn't play above his head like he did the year earlier. As a result, the Swiss lost the relegation game to Germany, and were returned to the B Pool the following year.
Jaks crossed the Atlantic for the 1993-94 season where he played with the Kings farm team - the Phoenix Roadrunners. He had a really good year for a rookie netminder, especially a European rookie. He had 16 wins against 13 losses and one tie. His GAA was high at 3.54, but he actually outplayed his counterparts David Goverde and veteran Rick Knickle.
Jaks returned for the 1994-95 season, and struggled at the IHL level. He had an injury plagued year and went 2-4-4 with a 4.15 GAA. However the Kings did call the Swiss sensation up for a small tour of duty. Jaks even got to play 2 periods of NHL action. He gave up 2 goals in 40 minutes, stopping 23 of 25 shots in a respectable performance. He did not get a decision in the match.
By appearing in the NHL, Jaks became the first Swiss born and trained player to play in the National Hockey League. However he was not the first NHLer born in Switzerland. That honor goes to long time Los Angeles King and New York Ranger Mark Hardy - who was born in Switzerland but was raised in Canada
Jaks returned to Switzerland after the 1994-95 season, but his legacy on Swiss hockey can not be overlooked. The Swiss have never been considered to be a hockey nation however interest in the country greatly increased during the 1990s, due in part to Jaks great performance back in the 1991 WJC.