REGINA — For the four Windsor Spitfires trying to make Canada’s team, there is only one thing that could top their comeback victory for the Memorial Cup last spring — a gold medal at the world junior championships.
Spitfires Taylor Hall, Ryan Ellis, Adam Henrique and Greg Nemisz were among the 35 players who took to the ice at the Brandt Centre on Sunday to begin battling for spots on the Canadian team that will be vying for a sixth consecutive gold medal at the world juniors Dec. 26-Jan. 5 in Regina and Saskatoon.
And there’s a chance all four will make the cut when the 22-man roster is announced on Wednesday.
“Any time your team has success there will be individual success that comes with it, so I think it’s a byproduct of the Memorial Cup,” said Hall. “That’s why we’re successful — we push each other — and we’ll push each other here.”
Hall is projected as a possible No. 1 overall pick in the NHL draft in June and is having a big season in Windsor, leading the Ontario Hockey League with 26 goals and 33 assists in 34 games. Right behind him is Henrique, with 28 goals and 25 assists.
Nemisz is fourth with 24 goals and 24 helpers, while the stocky Ellis, one of six players in camp returning from last year’s world junior team, is the team’s power-play point man.
Hall, a speedy, soft-handed left winger, was named most valuable player at the Memorial Cup in Rimouski in May, when the Spitfires became the first team to win after dropping their first two games. But many felt that Henrique was just as worthy with four clutch goals in six games and fine two-way play at centre.
The six-foot-three 200-pound Nemisz, a Calgary Flames prospect, is a physical right winger.
All four were placed on the same team as the players were split into two sides for intra-squad games, as were other club teammates such as returning centre Patrice Cormier and right-winger Jordan Caron of the Rimouski Oceanic, or centre Brayden Schenn and right-winger Scott Glennie of the Brandon Wheat Kings.
“We’re trying to let guys who play together be together,” said head coach Willie Desjardins of the Medecine Hat Tigers. “It’s worked for their club teams and we want to see if it will work here as well.
“It’s hard when you have guys from the same team playing against each other because you don’t want to be physical against a teammate. Once we’re together on one team, then we’ll mix the lines up.”
Hall, who was cut from last year’s camp as a 16-year-old, and centre Tyler Seguin of the Plymouth Whalers will be watched closely as they will both likely go in the top three or four in the NHL draft, perhaps even one-two. Seguin is currently third in OHL scoring with 26 goals and 25 assists and some feel he may overtake Hall in the rankings before they’re through.
“I’m having fun with it and I’m sure he is too,” said Hall, of Kingston, Ont. “It’ll make us both better players in the future.
“Speaking for myself, my goal is not to go No. 1 overall. It’s to play in the NHL and win a Stanley Cup one day. Hopefully, we can push each other. This tournament is a big spotlight. If you win a gold medal, no matter how much you play, your ranking goes up. So it’s a great opportunity for myself and a lot of other guys.”
While Hall’s offensive skills are dazzling, he knows he will need to look after the defensive side of the game as well to make the team.
The world juniors is essentially an event for 19-year-old players, and “underage” players like Hall, Seguin, forward John McFarland of the Sudbury Wolves and defenceman Brandon Gormley of the Moncton Wildcats often don’t get the ice time they’re used to, although John Tavares was named MVP of the tournament last year in Ottawa and then went first overall in the draft.
“I’m a very offensive player in Windsor and it’s a different role than I would have here,” said Hall. “In Windsor, I play a lot on the power play and the penalty kill, and here I’m going to be relied on to play solid defence and chip in on offence.
“They want me to be more of a complete player.”