UFA, Russia — Goaltending coach Ron Tugnutt mused aloud during the Canadian junior hockey team’s selection camp in Calgary that travelling 13 times zones to pursue a gold medal might not be a disadvantage for the team.
The world junior hockey championship was held in North America four consecutive years from 2009 to 2012 in Ottawa, Buffalo, N.Y., Saskatoon and then jointly in Calgary and Edmonton respectively.
The moment the Canadian team stepped off the ice in those tournaments, their performance was reflected back to them around the clock via wall-to-wall television and web coverage, text messages and social media.
Tugnutt hoped Ufa, Russia, would afford this edition of the Canadian team some isolation because of the distance and time change.
“They won’t be seeing as much of themselves on TV,” he said then. “We’re kind of on our own little island out there. I think this will be good for us.”
After concluding the preliminary round 4-0 to finish first in Pool B, some Canadian players spoke of the unifying effect of travelling so far from home.
They’ve been abroad together since Dec. 15, when Canada departed Calgary for a pre-competition camp and exhibition games in Finland.
“We had a few days in Vierumaki to definitely grow that bond,” captain Ryan Nugent-Hopkins said.
“It’s amazing how much we’ve come together in this tournament on and off the ice.”
Defenceman Dougie Hamilton, who helped Canada win bronze last year in Alberta, thought perhaps extended time in foreign countries may have given this team a troop mentality.
“Last year we went to Banff, but I think this year going through all the travel and the struggles with food and sleeping and stuff like that, I think it’s kind of helped us get together,” he said.
The Canadians players aren’t completely sequestered from the outside world here. They still have their mobile phones and electronic notebooks, but they can shut them off and go to sleep while post-game debate and analysis continues at home.
Canadian coach Steve Spott has observed that his players seem happiest off ice when they’re hanging around their hotel together.
“They don’t want to leave the hotel,” Spott said.
“We’ve had a number of team activities planned, but they enjoy being around each other in the hotel and that, to me, is a sign of a great hockey club.”
Canada is the only team in their hotel, which allowed their chefs Andre Gass and Jeff Hanna to commandeer the kitchen and cook for the team.
Canada’s reward for finishing first in their pool and gaining the bye to Thursday’s semifinal round was getting a day off from both the ice and the media on New Year’s Day.
The Canadians await the winner of Wednesday’s quarter-final between the Czech Republic and the United States. Defending champion Sweden also got a bye for finishing first in Pool A and will meet the winner of Wednesday’s quarter-final between Russia and Switzerland.
“Now you’re into one-game situations and we all know they are very difficult games, but I do like the place our team is in right now and I like the mindset of the group,” Spott said.
Canada was able to ease into this tournament with a 9-3 win over Germany and a 6-3 victory over Slovakia, although the Slovaks were the better team in the first period of their game.
But Canada’s real test was back-to-back games against the United States and host Russia on Sunday and Monday. Canada was minus two forwards because of suspensions, but held off a tough U.S. team 2-1.
Just over 24 hours later, they played smart, disciplined, hard hockey in a 4-1 win over the hosts.
Russia is a co-favourite for gold here because they’re loaded with high-end, skilled players. Forward Nail Yakupov was the first overall pick in this year’s NHL draft by Edmonton. But Russians relied too much on individual talent and not enough on team play against Canada.
Canada scored the most goals in the preliminary round (21) and tied with Sweden for the fewest against (8). Canadians were four of the tournament’s top five scorers after pool play.
Nugent-Hopkins tops the tournament in points with three goals and eight assists in four games.
Jonathan Huberdeau has seven points and Mark Scheifele and Ryan Strome lead Canada in goals with four apiece.
A player with an NHL season already under his belt is expected to stand out in a 19-year-old’s tournament. Nugent-Hopkins was a Calder Trophy finalist after his rookie year with the Edmonton Oilers.
The captain has done more than lead the offence though, says the coach.
“When we have meetings with him, we know the message going back to the room is the right one,” Spott said. “He’s been outstanding on and off the ice.”
The surprise for Canada so far has been 17-year-old winger Jonathan Drouin, who was promoted to the Nugent-Hopkins line against Russia. The Huberdeau, Que., forward scored the important third goal in the second period and did it with flare.
Goaltender Malcolm Subban stepped up his game against the Americans and Russians, allowing just one goal in each. The Belleville Bulls netminder seemed more sure of himself in net and controlled rebounds better than in his first two outings against weaker teams.
“I’ve been known as a guy who gets up for big games,” Subban said.
Added Spott: “He’s getting his swagger back and that’s important. Anyone that knows Malcolm, he needs that. I’m really pleased to see he’s got that air of confidence back.”
Canada’s power-play ranked fourth in the preliminary round with six goals on 19 chances.
Spott is more concerned about his team scoring more even-strength goals in the medal round, which is one reason he tried Drouin on Canada’s top line. Huberdeau rejoined Nugent-Hopkins and Scheifele when Canada was on the power play.
Canada’s penalty kill ranked second behind the U.S. with four power-play goals against.
Canada was minus third-line centre Boone Jenner for their first three games because of a suspension issued to him on the eve of the tournament. JC Lipon also sat out the U.S. game with a one-game ban.
Jenner, who plays for the Oshawa Generals, is a multi-purpose player who can win faceoffs, kill penalties and score. Having a full complement of forwards made Canada that much stronger against Russia, says Spott.
“Now that we’ve got everybody back and an opportunity to fire on (all) cylinders and not have to play guys multiple, multiple minutes at different positions, it’s the right thing for our hockey club and the timing couldn’t be better,” the coach said.
Since the world junior tournament switched to pool play from round-robin in 1996, the bye hasn’t been awarded consistently in the format. In 1998 and from 2000 to 2002, the top four countries in each pool made the playoffs and all played quarter-finals.
An extra day of rest is an advantage, particularly for the Canadian team that has travelled so far, but the bye is no guarantee of gold.
Three of the last five gold medallists have come through a quarter-final. The last Canadian team to do so was in 2008 in the Czech Republic.