Right behind Tim Horton’s coffee is Canada’s second great controversy– who will land between the pipes at the IIHF U20 World Junior Hockey Championships.
Across the country, as the start of the tournament closes in or as the preliminary round drifts on, Canadians weigh in with or without intimate knowledge of the next goaltender to try and capture gold for Canada.
It’s seemingly a rite of passage in Canada to have an opinion about a teenager strapping on the pads and leading the country to glory.
Plenty of goalies have made their mark on the position, from Roberto Luongo to Carey Price and more recently Joel Hofer– and many more have left people simply shaking their heads when they hear the name. Just ask Justin Pogge or Mark Visentin.
In Red Deer, for the next month, five goalies will compete for the chance to collect a gold medal at the 2021 World Junior Hockey Championships in Edmonton.
Brett Brochu, Dylan Garand, Taylor Gauthier, Tristan Lennox and Devon Levi are the group of goalies fighting for a spot and none have played for Canada before at the U20 level. Three are eligible for the 2021 NHL draft (Brochu, Gauthier and Lennox) and Garand and Levi were selected in the 2020 NHL Draft.
“I think all of us want to be the number one come Boxing Day for Team Canada,” Gauthier said.
“But not all of us can be in that situation so it’s been nice to get out and compete with the guys and I just want to go out and work as hard as I can and whatever happens and as long as I leave it on the table, I’ll be happy with myself.”
Gauthier, a Calgary native who plays with the Prince George Cougars won gold with Canada at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup in 2018-19. Garand and Lennox won silver at last year’s Hlinka Gretzky Cup. Really, the job is up for grabs as camp enters the first set of exhibition games this weekend.
“We’re in a unique situation this year. Every guy that’s here has a past and there’s obviously a lot of success with all five guys in the past. Now we’re looking at what they’re going to do here in the next couple weeks,” Canada’s goalie coach Jason Labarbera said.
“It’s obviously a big decision, there’s a lot of factors that go into it. There’s a lot of discussions that are going to happen. Ideally, you’re hoping one or two guys grab the ball and run with it.”
It seems this tournament always finds a way to single out the goalies and the man set to keep Canada steady at that position, is a long-time NHL veteran. Labarbera played parts of 11 seasons in the NHL, mostly serving as a backup. He had stops in New York, Los Angeles, Vancouver, Phoenix, Edmonton and Anaheim.
In his second season as Canada’s goalie coach, Labarbera knows both from his own career and last year, it is as much about the mental approach as it is the physical.
He added, without a CHL season to base a decision on and the goalies not having played for the most part since last March, getting them up to speed is the biggest challenge.
“You can’t mimic what you do at home, here. Obviously, the pace has picked up. Being on the ice with the guys, it’s been fast. Whatever goalie sessions or skates you are doing at home, you just can’t mimic it. It’s been an adjustment for the first couple days. We’re gradually moving along with the process,” Labarbera said.
“You’re building relationships with the guys and just trusting your instincts in the decisions that get made. It’s a unique season because the guys aren’t playing… this year, it’s getting them up to speed and developing those relations and those conversations for when the tournament does start and getting the guys ready to go.”
Labarbera noted there’s no early favourite without a returning goalie, but hopes somebody can grab the job and run with it.
“It’s a wide-open race. Right now we’re trying to get guys comfortable with the pace and with the setting and go from there,” he said.
The first Red and White scrimmage is set for 6 p.m. Saturday and will be aired on TSN.