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2018 WJC: Yamamoto poised to play starring role for Team USA

Team USA’s Kailer Yamamoto has already had a storybook season, going from the draft to the NHL. Now he’s looking to add a WJC chapter.

It was bound to happen for Kailer Yamamoto, this introduction to NHL royalty, but few, perhaps even the prized rookie included, thought it would come this soon.

Imagine, for a moment, that you were him. On June 23, as a modestly sized, impossibly baby-faced 18-year-old, the Spokane Chiefs winger was drafted 22nd overall by the Edmonton Oilers. On stage in Chicago, as he shook hands with a lineup of team brass, waiting for him with an outstretched grip was the man himself, Wayne Gretzky, who again represents the team in an official capacity, as a club partner and vice-chairman of the Oilers Entertainment Group.

There was little Yamamoto could do to hide the stunned look on his face, the weight of the moment not lost on the teen even then. Welcome to the NHL, indeed.

But the whirlwind would not stop there. Next it was time for training camp, where Yamamoto’s first taste of the pros came in the considerable presence of his new linemate, none other than Connor McDavid.

This was expected for the newest Oiler, an audience first with the franchise’s most hallowed name of years past, then with its greatest hope for the future, though here is where Yamamoto went off script. No matter that he stood only 5-foot-8, weighed just 154 pounds, and was presumed to first need at least a little more seasoning back in the WHL, Yamamoto went ahead and made Edmonton’s regular season roster, anyway.

A few weeks into the season, the Oilers travelled to Pittsburgh. Across the ice from Yamamoto inside the Penguins’ PPG Paints Arena was Sidney Crosby, his childhood idol and hero.

For the third time in just a few short months, he felt it: whoa.

So it went for Yamamoto, who in his brief stint in the pros has already shown that no conventional storyline in hockey can quite stick to him. “It almost,” said Yamamoto of his breakneck first months in the NHL, “seemed surreal.”

With McDavid and other top draftees in tow, the future of Edmonton hockey doesn’t rest entirely on Yamamoto’s shoulders. But Team USA is another story. Suddenly Yamamoto, who didn’t make the cut last year, is a key player for Team USA’s 2018 WJC squad.

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Yamamoto starred for the U.S. at the World Junior Summer Showcase, and his journey to the big tournament can be traced to the emergence of America’s three-headed frontline monster. At the 2016 World Under-18 Championship in North Dakota, Yamamoto beasted alongside winger Casey Mittelstadt (drafted eighth overall by Buffalo in 2017) and center Logan Brown (drafted 11th overall by Ottawa in 2016 and the son of longtime NHL defenseman Jeff Brown), scoring seven goals in seven games. The trio combined for 34 points, each of them easily placing among the tournament’s scoring leaders.

The line’s chemistry was apparent from the start and only continued to build over the summer. During a game against Canada in August, an 8-2 victory for the U.S., an American split-squad team featuring Yamamoto, Mittelstadt and Brown poured in four goals and nine points. “Those are guys I have really good connections with on the ice,” Yamamoto said.

Championship or bust isn’t quite the winger’s mindset heading to Buffalo, but he won’t mince words, either. “Every player in this tournament wants to win gold,” he said.

The world juniors will be Yamamoto’s first real time in the spotlight, his early season run in Edmonton notwithstanding. After nine games with the Oilers, Yamamoto was sent down Nov. 6 to rejoin the Chiefs in the WHL, where he will surely spend the rest of the season.

In Spokane, Yamamoto’s hometown, there is still work to do. There is a shot to add quickness and velocity to, and footwork to improve, for he is never going to make an impact in the NHL through size and strength. Those things will come. For now, the memories are here.

It was just Yamamoto’s first career NHL game when he watched with eyes wide as dinner plates, as McDavid took the puck in his own end, sped down the right side of the ice like a rocket, and shelved his second goal of the game over the glove of Calgary’s Mike Smith. From the bench, Yamamoto could only marvel with his new teammates. Was this what every rookie’s first moments in the NHL were like? “That was something,” Yamamoto said, “that I’ll probably never forget.”