February 26th, 2024

Tight-knit Canada set for tough test against hosts Sweden at world juniors

By Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press on December 28, 2023.

Canada's Macklin Celebrini (17), tosses a glove past Fraser Minten (12) following the team photo at the IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship in Gothenburg, Sweden, Thursday, Dec. 28, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christinne Muschi

GOTHENBURG, Sweden – Macklin Celebrini dropped back to pass – with a glove in place of a football – and fired towards a sliding Fraser Minten.

Conor Geekie and Nate Danielson were play fighting close by, while goaltenders Mathis Rousseau and Scott Ratzlaff had a friendly grappling match in the corner.

“We’ve been together for a little bit now,” Celebrini said Thursday. “We’re a team of brothers.”

A delayed group picture along with some time away from the rink to be with family and friends offered Canada a brief respite from the enormous expectations that come with pulling on the red Maple Leaf at the world junior hockey championship.

After getting a chance to recharge following a pair of victories to open the annual showcase, things are about to get a lot more difficult.

Canada will march into the jam-packed Scandinavium arena – a building that resembles Calgary’s Scotiabank Saddledome – against the tournament hosts Friday night in a marquee Group A matchup.

“Skilled, dangerous,” Canadian head coach Alan Letang said of Sweden. “Very, very dangerous off the rush.”

Canada is looking secure a third straight gold medal at the under-20 tournament for the first time since the country grabbed five in a row from 2005 to 2009, but is without some major NHL star power – namely Connor Bedard.

“These games are the easiest to get up for, and have energy and be present in,” said Minten, Canada’s captain and a Toronto Maple Leafs prospect. “It’s just really fun.”

There are about 3,500 red-clad Canucks in Gothenburg for the tournament. Despite those strong numbers, they will be in the minority Friday.

“Crowd’s is going to be electric,” said Letang, who has just one returnee from the 2023 tournament in Montreal Canadiens draft pick Owen Beck. “We’ll see how we handle that pressure, that momentum.”

Rousseau, who looks set to make a third consecutive start, said the belief in Canada’s camp is strong.

“Everybody has the same mindset,” he said. “We’re here to do big things. Everybody trusts each other.”

The Swedes, who were set to meet Germany on Thursday and are viewed as favourites along with the United States, cruised past Latvia 6-0 in their opener.

Canada, meanwhile, topped Finland 5-2 before thumping the Latvians 10-0 on Wednesday. The 17-year-old Celebrini – expected to be the top pick at the 2024 NHL draft – stole the show with a goal and four assists.

“I’ve seen him out-compete, outscore guys two years older than him his whole life,” said Minten, who, like the star centre, grew up in Vancouver. “Come to expect it at this point.”

Celebrini and linemate Matthew Wood are two players with recent experience against Friday’s opponent.

And it wasn’t pretty. Canada lost 8-0 to Sweden at April’s under-18 world championships in Switzerland.

“Bit of redemption here,” Celebrini said. “Only time playing against them, they wiped us. Definitely motivation.”

The Swedes are led by Vancouver Canucks draft pick Jonathan Lekkerimaki and Detroit Red Wings prospect Axel Sandin Pellika, who both play professionally in their country.

Letang said he expects Canada’s defence to be under a lot of pressure, but is confident his group can handle it with support from the forwards.

“Excited for this challenge,” he said. “It’s all the stuff we’ve been preaching.”

One of those blueliners is Ty Nelson.

The Toronto product didn’t make the initial roster, but was summoned from a family Christmas trip in Pittsburgh due to a rash of Canadian injuries.

He drove back to Toronto, flew to Germany and boarded his connection to Gothenburg.

That’s when things got interesting over the weekend.

A windy day on Sweden’s west coast meant the flight from Frankfurt briefly touched down on the tarmac before taking off again and heading to Stockholm.

Nelson’s heart skipped a few beats.

“It was quiet on the plane,” he said. “Everybody was scared. We had to keep the window shade open. I was wishing I could close it. It was scary. We just touched down and right back up. We weren’t expecting it.”

The pilot tried to land again a few hours later – successfully, this time – after a brief stop in the Swedish capital. Nelson, whose absence pushed the taking of Canada’s official picture back to Thursday, was off to join his teammates and try to kick the jet lag.

“Hard to take in,” he said of being at the world juniors. “Growing up as a kid you always want to play in this tournament, especially being a Canadian.

“Having the honour to represent our country, it means so much.”

Now he’s part of a group that’s chasing a dream – and staring down a tough test.

“We’ve become really close,” Celebrini said. “It’s awesome to have that chemistry and have that brotherhood.”

They’ll need each other Friday night.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 28, 2023.


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