Win or lose, the world juniors nearly always capture the hearts of this hockey nation.
Teenage rock stars on TSN’s holiday sports viewing stage.
Rarely, though, is a Canadian team so assured of seizing our full attention — perhaps even prompting alarm clocks to go off at ungodly hours.
While the NHL continues to stumble around in the dark, about to meet for another round of CBA talks at some “undisclosed location,” a loaded, lockout-fuelled Canadian junior camp took to the ice in Calgary for the first time on Tuesday.
Real hockey players, preparing for meaningful games. What a concept.
Fans are as hungry to see this team as this team is to get going.
With NHL games cancelled through Dec. 30, the juniors figure to have the hockey spotlight to themselves, perhaps through the entire tournament, Dec. 26-Jan. 5. Even with a sudden CBA agreement, the earliest the NHL could begin play is Dec. 31, and Team Canada certainly owns the morning of New’s Year Eve, regardless of NHL developments by then.
Where else to be but in front of the TV set when Canada meets Russia at 9 a.m. Eastern Time on Dec. 31 in Ufa, Russia.
Thanks to the NHL’s stalemate, a host of players that might otherwise be unavailable to the junior program will be dressed in Canadian colours for the 2013 world junior event.
That includes Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who has already dazzled NHL fans in his rookie season for the Edmonton Oilers, and yet is thrilled to take a step down to the U20 ranks to get his first taste of world junior action. Others who might not be here if the NHL was in business: Jonathan Huberdeau of the Florida Panthers; Ryan Strome of the Carolina Hurricanes; Mark Scheifele, the future Winnipeg Jet who has visited Ottawa many times as a member of the OHL Barrie Colts, Dougie Hamilton, the Boston Bruins prospect, Ryan Murphy, the Carolina Hurricanes 12th overall pick; Griffin Reinhart, taken fourth overall by the New York Islanders in 2012 and Morgan Rielly, the fifth overall pick in the same draft, by the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Already a superstar line has emerged, at least in the early skates: Nugent-Hopkins at centre between Scheifele (shifted to wing from centre) and Huberdeau, also a natural centre. It’s that kind of year for Canada — forming a line that could double as a power play unit.
That four of the players cited above — Hamilton, Reinhart, Murphy and Rielly — are defencemen helps explain why some are calling this group potentially the best blueline corps Canada has assembled for the world junior tournament (but let’s save the superlatives until the job is complete).
And yet, it was still a surprise that 6-foot-3 defenceman Cody Ceci of the Ottawa 67’s, the Senators’ 15th overall pick this past summer, didn’t at least scoop an invitation to camp.
The 67’s are represented in Calgary by Sean Monahan and Tyler Graovac — the pair skated on the same forward line Tuesday.
One of the OHL’s hottest scorers in the early weeks of the season, Graovac, a Minnesota Wild pick, has 18 goals in 24 games. Monahan, 18, is rated as a high first round pick next summer, but in Calgary has to try to beat out older, more experienced players — always highly valued in this tournament.
For now, he’s just glad to be back competing. Due to a 10-game suspension for an illegal bodycheck, Monahan hasn’t played a game since Nov. 20. Already, head coach Steve Spott is raving about Monahan’s NHL-level hockey sense.
Of course, Monahan is a grizzled veteran compared to heralded Haligonian Nathan MacKinnon, 17, a second-year QMJHL player for the Halifax Mooseheads. MacKinnon and his Mooseheads teammate Jonathan Drouin, also 17, are two more draft-eligible players trying to beat the odds by grabbing a spot on the Canadian roster.
Boston Bruins prospect Malcolm Subban is expected to start in goal for Canada. The brother of Montreal Canadiens defenceman P.K. Subban, M. Subban has the rare advantage of being an OHL goaltender accustomed to the tricky angles and optics of the international ice, as the Belleville Bulls regularly practice and play on the big ice at the Yardmen Arena.
The 36 invited players held their first practice Tuesday morning. The first scrimmage was to be held in the evening, as coach Spott and team administrators began the process of whittling the group down to 23 for the trip to Russia.
Soon enough, we’ll find out how devoted Canadian fans are to their juniors. With the 11-hour time difference between Ufa and Eastern Canada, games will be broadcast at odd hours (with repeat broadcasts, of course). Canada’s first three games are at 4:30 a.m., Dec. 26 vs. Germany, Dec. 28 vs. Slovakia and Dec. 30 vs. the USA. The gold medal game is at 8 a.m. Jan. 5.
This is the first time in five years the tournament is being played outside of North America. Canada last won gold in 2009, when the event was held in Ottawa, Jordan Eberle and John Tavares worked their magic, and a packed Scotiabank Place audience looked on in awe.