By Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press on December 8, 2023.
Peter Anholt sees a group craving for an opportunity – finally – in the spotlight.
Many of the players hoping to make Canada’s roster for the upcoming world junior hockey championship were hit especially hard by the COVID-19 pandemic’s fallout within the sport.
International tournaments cancelled, events postponed or scaled back, dreams and development put on hold.
With the 2024 world juniors – their world juniors – just around the corner, this crop of talent is poised for its moment.
“They didn’t have some of the things that other age groups have had because of the COVID situation,” said Anholt, the lead member of Canada’s management team.
“This is their opportunity to make it their time.”
Selection camp for the showcase event that opens Dec. 26 in Gothenburg, Sweden, gets going Sunday in Oakville, Ont., with a late-evening skate as players trickle into the Greater Toronto Area.
The 30 hopefuls will then take part in practice sessions throughout Monday ahead of two exhibition games against a squad of university all-stars before the decision-makers trim the roster.
“These are the guys that have been robbed of opportunities,” Canada head coach Alan Letang said. “A few have never played at the (under-18 Hlinka Gretzky Cup) or put that jersey on for Hockey Canada because of COVID and because of other circumstances. It’s a group that’s going to be excited.
“A group that feels like, ‘Hey, I finally get my moment, my opportunity.'”
Canada will fly across the Atlantic Ocean as two-time defending champions – a rapid-fire pair of gold medals in less than five months because of pandemic delays – including last year’s dramatic victory in Halifax.
But there’s just one returning player from the 2023 event in forward Owen Beck, who was a medal-round injury replacement.
Canada will be minus a host of eligible NHL talent from last year’s offensive juggernaut, including Connor Bedard (Chicago), Adam Fantilli (Columbus), Shane Wright (Seattle) and Kevin Korchinski (Chicago). Matthew Poitras (Boston) and Zach Benson (Buffalo) are other eligible players on NHL rosters.
That doesn’t mean the Canadians lack high-end skill.
Macklin Celebrini, a 17-year-old forward projected to go at the top of the 2024 NHL draft, will be at camp along with 10 first-round picks from 2022 and 2023, while Fraser Minten, who played four games with the Toronto Maple Leafs this season before returning to junior, is also in the mix up front.
“We can come up with a group that’s gonna be a really, really good team,” said Anholt, who is also general manager of the WHL’s Lethbridge Hurricanes. “But it might win in a different way than other Canadian teams.”
The country’s brain trust had to deal with shorter-than-normal runways during the pandemic when picking players because of health restrictions.
There was once again no summer camp – this time for financial reasons – meaning the process of identifying invitees again started a little later than usual.
“We got out to the NHL rookie camps or tournaments,” Anholt said. “We got our eyes on some guys right off the bat. We had a depth chart and an idea of the group of players that were available.
“And then to get out to the different leagues, and actually see the players in person “¦ that’s really, really important.”
Letang, who got the coaching nod after winning this summer’s Hlinka Gretzky Cup and serving as a 2023 world junior assistant, said he has a greater appreciation for scouts following the fall exercise.
“They’ve done an amazing job of putting this invite list together with seeing some guys live, but also diving into video,” said Letang, head coach of the OHL’s Sarnia Sting. “The exciting part is bringing all these kids in and just watching them showcase what we felt we saw.”
Canada’s backroom setup also includes former NHL defenceman and three-time Stanley Cup winner Brent Seabrook as he looks to transition to the next chapter of his career.
“A lot of great players coming to camp,” said the 38-year-old, who won gold with Canada at the 2005 world juniors. “Excited to see them together and competing.”
The first step toward a potential three-peat starts this weekend.
“It’s such a honour to represent Canada at any level – anywhere, any time,” Anholt said. “You understand the magnitude and you understand the expectations, but have keep that in the back of your mind.
“You can reflect after the whole process is done.”
One for which this group of players has been longing.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 8, 2023.
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