DU hockey’s Sean Behrens, Avs prospect, on World Juniors experience

DU hockey’s Sean Behrens, Avs prospect, on World Juniors experience

January 31, 2023

An hour before practice, players were making plans to watch the North American clash together. The buzz that engulfed the hockey world Jan. 4 was tangible inside the University of Denver facility, with a personal touch.

DU teammate Sean Behrens was competing for Team USA in the highly anticipated World Junior Championship semifinal against Canada.

“He’s been fun to watch there,” said DU captain Justin Lee, a Manitoba native.

“But …” Lee paused. “I’ve gotta cheer for Canada here tonight.”

OK, how about polling another Canadian in the room?

“I want Sean to do good,” fellow blueliner Mike Benning said. “He’s one of my good buddies, and obviously I want him to do well. But I think I’ve gotta go with Canada.”

They got their wish that night with a 6-2 result in Halifax, Nova Scotia, but Behrens and the U.S. ended the tournament on a high note, unseating Sweden in an 8-7 overtime thriller to win bronze. For the DU defenseman and coveted Avalanche prospect, it was a bittersweet finale to his World Junior eligibility.

Behrens returned to Denver with hardware after twice missing the opportunity to play in the prestigious tournament.

“One of the best experiences of my hockey career,” he said. “From the tournament to the atmosphere to winning a bronze medal, it’s a dream come true to play in that tournament. And to be able to win that last game was something that’ll stick with me.”

A positive COVID-19 test prevented Behrens from joining Team U.S.A. in the first attempt at a 2022 tournament last winter. But a surge in cases caused the event to be halted and rescheduled for the summer, giving him new hope. A few months later, he joined his DU teammate Carter Mazur at the postponed event — but Behrens’ role was a healthy scratch and depth player. He barely saw ice him. When he did, he quickly got injured and was out for the tournament.

Anxiety about missing another was natural. Behrens turns 20 in March, aging out of WJ eligibility.

This time, he was a pillar of stability. He averaged the second-most ice time (19:58) on the U.S. roster, finishing plus-five over a seven-game run.

Third try’s a charm.

“Going into that World Juniors, I thought to myself, it’s something where you look at how easy it is for something to be taken away, or for you to not get an opportunity,” Behrens said. “And I thought just going into this one over Christmas, it’s my last chance. Last run at it.”

Any worries dissipated quickly when he scored a goal in the group stage opener. It was a one-timer from the blue line, threaded through traffic to give the U.S. a 2-1 second-period lead against Latvia. He added an assist in the win, which helped him climb the lineup to the top pairing by the end of the group stage.

It was also his mom’s birthday.

The only problem: She wasn’t there. Her flight to Halifax had been canceled the day before. The family was stuck in Toronto and didn’t arrive until the day after Behrens’ big moment.

“Going into that game, you think you can kind of give back to your mom,” Behrens said. “It was an awesome feeling being able to get that one.”

Behrens didn’t score for the remainder of the tournament after his mom arrived, but he was one of Team U.S.A.’s most reliable two-way players. The knockout stage was packed with more memorable experiences. Behrens was struck by the atmosphere in the Canada semifinal — during which he went up against consensus future No. 1 draft pick Connor Bedard — and by the sheer chaos of the third-place win over Sweden.

“I can’t remember the last time I was in an 8-7 game,” he laughed. “That was crazy.”

Back in Denver, the Barrington, Illinois, native has 14 points (12 assists) in 22 games. He returned with the lessons from the last year on his mind — “never knowing when your last chance is going to be, your last opportunity,” he said — and has maintained  contact with the Avs in the meantime.

“They’ve given me a lot of pointers throughout the season,” he said.

The Avalanche’s top defensive prospect estimates he went to six games during their championship season, but he hasn’t made it to a game since.

After his emergent performance on the international stage, the only mystery is whether his next Ball Arena appearance will be in the stands or on the ice.

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