March 1st, 2024

NCAA teammates Celebrini, Hutson and Willander chasing same dream at world juniors

By Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press on December 28, 2023.

Sweden's Tom Willander, left, pulls away from Latvia's Davis Borozinskis during the IIHF World Junior Championship group A preliminary round action in Gothenburg, Sweden, Tuesday, Dec. 26, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Björn Larsson Rosvall/TT News Agency via AP

Macklin Celebrini is thrilled his college teammates are getting the opportunity.

He’s also hoping to see them return to the NCAA bitterly disappointed.

The presumptive top pick at the 2024 NHL draft, Celebrini has paused his season at Boston University in hopes of winning gold with Canada at the world junior hockey championship.

There are some familiar faces – Lane Hutson of the United States and Sweden’s Tom Willander – kicking around Gothenburg looking to do the same.

“If you take a step back, you’re happy for everyone,” Celebrini said of the defencemen. “But not while we’re here.”

The 17-year-old Vancouver native burst onto the scene with the Terriers this season, putting up 10 goals and 25 points in 15 games before making his country’s roster for the under-20 tournament. He’s already added a pair of goals and four assists in two appearances at the annual showcase in Sweden.

Hutson is 19 and was always going to be part of the U.S. setup if healthy, but Celebrini and the 18-year-old Willander were far less assured of spots on their national teams back in the fall.

“It’s pretty cool,” said Hutson, a 2022 second-round pick of the Montreal Canadiens. “Two great players. They deserve to be here.”

Willander, like Celebrini, is in his first NCAA season.

“It’s been a long time since we had the tournament on home ice,” the 11th overall selection by the Vancouver Canucks last June said of the world juniors. “To be part of that is pretty cool.

“It’ll be fun to see which of us can get the gold.”

Hutson, who helped the U.S. grab bronze at last year’s world juniors in Halifax and Moncton, N.B., had 48 points in 39 games for BU in 2022-23. He’s started just as strong this season with eight goals and 12 assists in 15 contests.

“A lot is made of his offensive attributes and upside,” said first-year American coach David Carle. “But I was most impressed by his desire and willingness to take away time and space without the puck, and to defend.

“You have to be able to do it at both ends of the rink.”

Willander, meanwhile, chose the NCAA route over playing professionally in Sweden.

“The development there is really good,” he said of suiting up for ex-NHLer and former Boston Bruins assistant Jay Pandolfo at BU.

Hutson said his college defence partner was making big strides before getting on the flight to Europe. Willander has three goals and five assists in 15 games so far in 2023-24.

“Really reliable on his own end,” Hutson said. “Untapped offensive ability he’s figuring out. I’m excited for what the future holds.”

The blueliners have also both been blown away by what Celebrini has shown as a freshman sometimes pitted against opponents as old as 25.

“Really good offensively, obviously,” Willander said. “But not a lot of those kinds of players get recognition for having a good overall game. The way he plays as a centre is really helpful for me as a defenceman.

“Complete player.”

Celebrini’s maturity also stood out as soon as he arrived on campus.

“He could fit in with guys who are 30 or 40,” Hutson said. “That’s pretty special and you don’t find with a 17-year-old. The way he plays the game, he’s reliable. There’s no ego or arrogance.

“He’s there to work. Then his skill takes over.”

Hutson did, however, get the better of Celebrini in pre-tournament play when he scored in overtime to beat Canada 6-5.

“Couldn’t help but smile at him and he was smiling back,” Hutson said. “One of the best players I’ve ever played with. It’s pretty special to not only compete against him in practice, but in a game setting.”

Celebrini and Willander will get that chance in a crucial Group A game Friday when Sweden, which fell 5-3 to the U.S. in pre-tournament action, faces Canada at a packed-to-the-rafters Scandinavium arena.

“I’ll definitely be watching,” Hutson said. “Excited to see how it goes.”

It’s also likely the Americans, who sit atop Group B, will run into Canada or Sweden – or both – in the medal round.

“Texted a little bit with Macklin and Tom before we were gonna play each other for the exhibition games,” Hutson said. “Not so much during.”

When the messages do appear on their screens, it’s not like back in Boston.

“Everyone’s representing their own country,” Celebrini said. “You want to get the upper hand.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 28, 2023.

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