Canada expects pressure as World Junior camp opens
BROSSARD, QC -- Pressure to win is nothing new for Hockey Canada. But that pressure will only be heightened this year.
The Canada national junior team summer development camp gets underway Sunday just outside Montreal in Brossard, Quebec. It's there that 41 players will take their first few steps to earn a chance to play in the 2015 IIHF World Junior Championship, which begins Dec. 26 in Montreal and Toronto.
It's one thing to represent Canada in the WJC, it's quite another to do it at home. Playing the tournament in Canada's two biggest cities adds another level of pressure to this year's event.
Canada coach Benoit Groulx of the Gatineau Olympiques in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League knows this. But four months before the start of the tournament, he's not worried about the pressure.
In fact, he's embracing it.
"A lot of people are talking about pressure, and I think pressure is good," Groulx said. "It means we have a chance to win, it means we have a good team. There are teams who come to this tournament who say they have no pressure, but that means they don't think they will win. So for us, it's a positive. We are very aware of how big this will be, and that will be on the agenda for our week with the players. We're going to talk to them about it, but the players are also very aware of all that."
Canada has not medaled at the WJC since winning bronze in 2012, which is the last time it hosted the tournament. But Groulx's primary concern is another streak he would love to break on home ice.
"It's been [more than] five years since Canada has won the gold medal," he said. "So we all know when we enter the tournament what the goal is. We all have that in the back of our minds."
Groulx and his assistants, Dave Lowry of the Western Hockey League's Victoria Royals and Scott Walker of the Guelph Storm in the Ontario Hockey League, are making sure they collect as much information as possible at development camp.
Canada will play four scrimmages in four days from Tuesday to Friday against the national junior teams of Russia and the Czech Republic, who are holding camps in Montreal and Sherbrooke, Quebec. Groulx said the high number of games will allow him and his staff to put each of their players in different situations to see if they can demonstrate the versatility that will be a very admirable trait for any national team candidate.
"For us it's to really get to know all the players in depth, not just as hockey players but also as individuals. I think it's something that is essential today in a camp as short as this one, to get to know the values of each player, their level of commitment on and off the ice, their style of play, their ability to raise their game, to adapt to situations," Groulx said. "We're going to take them out of their comfort zone a bit. That's why we scheduled so many games in so few days. Everyone's going to see some action, but we're going to be very busy talking to them and teaching them on the way we want to play, the way we're going to compete on the ice. That's our goal for these games."
The development camp roster includes 10 players from the team that lost to Russia in the bronze-medal game at the 2014 WJC. Forward Jonathan Drouin of the Halifax Mooseheads in the QMJHL, who ranked second on the 2014 team with nine points in seven games, will not be in attendance because he has participated in the past two tournaments for Canada, making him exempt, according to Hockey Canada policy. Drouin probably wouldn't be available for Canada at the tournament considering his very strong chances of cracking the Tampa Bay Lightning lineup.
Drouin is hardly alone in that category for Canada, with a number of players attending the camp having a good chance of playing in the NHL this season. Defenceman Aaron Ekblad, the top pick in the 2014 NHL Draft, could be playing with the Florida Panthers come Christmas. The same could be said for the second pick in the draft, forward Sam Reinhart of the Buffalo Sabres, and several other players.
This unknown element is an annual challenge for Canada, and one Groulx is not particularly worried about heading into camp.
"We don't think we're at a disadvantage or an advantage in that area," Groulx said. "We think we have some very good players no matter who will be available or not. Obviously we want to have the best junior-aged players in Canada available, but we know very well how it works."
One player Groulx is sure to have available at the tournament is Connor McDavid of the OHL's Erie Otters, who is the consensus top prospect for the 2015 NHL Draft. The junior camp is the first event of what will be a season of scrutiny for McDavid, who figures to be an important part of the Canadian team after playing more of a supporting role as a 16-year-old last year.
Groulx got to know McDavid at last year's tournament when he was an assistant to coach Brent Sutter, and he is confident the budding star will stand up well to the glaring spotlight he will be under this season.
"I think Connor McDavid, more than being an excellent hockey player, he's a very good person," Groulx said. "You can tell this young man comes from a very good family and has good values. He's very intelligent and he learned a lot from the tournament last year. Now he's a year older and he's well prepared mentally for this camp and for what's to come. He knows what he's getting into this year."
For McDavid, the rest of the players at the camp and the coaching staff, the challenge will be to try to put what awaits them at Christmas on the back burner. Until then, the coaches will be looking to build relationships with their potential team and the players will be trying to lay the groundwork for surviving the final selection camp in December.
Author: Arpon Basu | Managing Editor LNH.com
EDITOR'S NOTE: Flames prospects Sam Bennett and Morgan Klimchuk are among the 41 players at Canada's summer development camp in Brossard. Bennett centered Brendan Perlini and Jayce Hawryluk on Monday while Klimchuk skated on a line with Connor McDavid and Jérémy Gregoire.