March 3rd, 2024

Despite missing NHL stars, ‘relentless’ Canada ready to defend gold at world juniors

By Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press on December 23, 2023.

Canada's under-20 men's national team will be without a handful of NHLers when it opens the world junior hockey championship against Finland on Tuesday. Canada head coach Alan Letang is seen at practice in Malmo, Sweden, Monday, Dec. 18, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-TT News Agency, Johan Nilsson

Alan Letang isn’t focused on the absences.

It doesn’t do Canada’s head coach any good.

“We’re missing what we miss,” Letang said. “There’s nothing we can do about that.”

The under-20 men’s national team will be without a handful of mouth-watering eligible NHLers when it opens the world junior hockey championship Tuesday against Finland.

Letang, however, is solely focused on the players in the fold as Canada looks to secure a third consecutive gold medal – and the tournament’s first three-peat since the country topped the podium five straight times between 2005 and 2009.

“We’ve got the group we have,” Letang continued. “If we win with four lines, there’s nothing wrong with that. If you don’t have the superstar, everyone gets to contribute.

“Canada’s depth is the big advantage.”

Players in the pros skipping the annual holiday showcase include potential returnees Connor Bedard – who rewrote Canada’s record book last year in Halifax and was always highly unlikely to play in 2024 – Adam Fantilli, Shane Wright and Kevin Korchinski, while Zach Benson could have also been in the mix.

Despite missing those big names, the group set to hit the ice in Gothenburg, Sweden, on Boxing Day still has plenty to offer.

“A team that’s over the boards,” Letang said. “A team by committee where everyone’s chipping in.”

Macklin Celebrini, the presumptive No. 1 pick at the upcoming NHL draft, leads the forward group along with Conor Geekie, Matthew Savoie and Owen Beck – a Montreal Canadiens prospect and the only returning player from 2023 – while the defence corps is anchored by Denton Mateychuk, Tristan Luneau and Maveric Lamoureux.

“You can’t hide away from the fact that there’s some guys that could be here that aren’t, but we have a great group,” said Celebrini, a 17-year-old standout at Boston University this season. “A lot of special players in that locker room.”

The goaltending remains the usual question mark, with Scott Ratzlaff, Mathis Rousseau and Samuel St-Hilaire all looking to stake their crease claim, but the squad got a boost when the Boston Bruins loaned centre Matthew Poitras, who has 13 points in 27 games this season, to Canada for the duration of the tournament.

Beck, Luneau and Fraser Minten, meanwhile, have played 12 combined NHL contests.

“The whole country’s riveted on Boxing Day,” said Letang, who was an assistant when Canada won gold in 2020 and 2023. “These kids haven’t gone through that yet. There’ll be nerves, there’ll be some learning curve.

“They’re excited to get their moment.”

An experienced United States roster and hosts Sweden are viewed as favourites on the outside, but that doesn’t bother Canada.

“Absolutely a great honour,” Mateychuk said of pulling on the red Maple Leaf. “Just going to the camps in the past, they always show you those world junior goals, those big moments.”

One word is consistently getting thrown around by players and staff alike when asked what stands about the roster.

“Relentless,” Geekie said.

“Relentless and resilient,” Letang added. “That’s got to be our group and that’s got to be our mindset. We all have something to prove to each other, and to everybody.”

Hockey Canada executive Scott Salmond chipped in with a couple more adjectives.

“Competitive, tenacious, relentless,” he said. “Without those star players, everybody’s got to do more.

“We’re going to come at teams in waves.”

Canada is in Group A with Finland, Sweden, Latvia and Germany. The medal round starts Jan. 2, with the final set for Jan. 5 at Gothenburg’s Scandinavium arena.

A mid-tournament injury replacement last year, Beck has passed on as much information as he can from the experience in Halifax.

“I know how important every play is, every moment of the game is,” he said. “Every little moment really matters. It may not seem like it, but every blocked shot, every backcheck, every faceoff matters … every little moment counts.”

Letang said staying in those moments – and dealing with the difficult ones with a level head – will be key.

“We know what we’re going to come up against,” he said. “We know the teams we’re going to face, we know it’s in Europe, we know the intensity, we know how important those little moments are.

“If we just stay focused and stay true to that identity, we’ll be fine.”

An identity, at least according to everyone within Canada’s setup, that starts with being relentless.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 23, 2023.

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