When Team USA and Russia face off tonight at the Centrium in a world junior exhibition game, U.S. forward Charlie Coyle will begin his test run through Canadian Hockey League buildings.
Along with that Red Deer stop, Coyle and company will see their share of CHL rinks in the next two weeks as Team USA plays its tournament preliminary games at Rexall Place in Edmonton and playoff-round games at the Saddledome in Calgary.
Those arenas might be most familiar to U.S. forward Emerson Etem of the Medicine Hat Tigers, but they’re new ground for the likes of Coyle, who is about to jump into the CHL waters in a big way.
Coyle was a sophomore at Boston University, but he bolted last week and committed to the Saint John Sea Dogs of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. The Sea Dogs are the reigning Memorial Cup champions.
“To be honest, I haven’t watched a lot of major junior,” Coyle, 19, said Sunday night after a Team USA practice at the Enmax Centre in Camrose.
“I’ve always been a college guy and that’s what I’ve watched out for. It’ll be a different change, but I’m looking forward to it. I’m just going to keep playing my game. I think that’s why Saint John liked me, so we’ll see what it brings. I’ll just keep working hard and playing my game.”
That power-forward style made Coyle, now a Minnesota Wild prospect, a first-round draft pick of the San Jose Sharks in 2010.
“I’ll be a two-way player,” he said. “I like to use my body. Kind of a power forward. Just shoot pucks. I think I could score, when needed to, and I’m a pretty good passer. Just be a physical presence out there.”
Coyle is an imposing presence at six-foot-three and about 215 pounds.
“I guess I’m not done growing yet, so that’s a good sign,” he said with a smile.
Coyle is finished with school, however, in a move that he believes will expedite his journey to the NHL. He had multiple suitors from the QMJHL, but the champion Sea Dogs proved they can win off the ice, too.
“They’ve been asking about me for a few years . . . a year or two,” Coyle said of the Sea Dogs, whose head coach is former NHL head coach Gerard Gallant and whose manager is former NHL assistant coach Mike Kelly.
“I was at BU and I enjoyed my time there. I loved it there, but I think it was just time for me to focus on going for my pro career and just focusing all on hockey. Kind of putting the school behind me. I think Saint John is a great place to do that.”
He’s already familiar with Sea Dogs forward Zack Phillips from their time together last summer at the Wild’s development camp. Phillips was cut from Team Canada last week, but two other NHL first-round picks from Saint John, defenceman Nathan Beaulieu and forward Jonathan Huberdeau, are part of the Canadian lineup.
“They’ve got a few guys on the (Canadian) team, so it’ll be a good battle,” Coyle said of going against his new Saint John teammates. “I’m really looking forward towards that. Just have a good tournament, and we’ll see a few of the guys along the way.”
Canada faces the U.S. on New Year’s Eve at Rexall Place.
Coyle is among 28 players vying for 22 jobs with Team USA, which is based in Camrose this week. After tonight’s game in Red Deer, the U.S. meets Switzerland on Wednesday in Camrose and Slovakia on Friday in Three Hills in other pre-tournament games.
Coyle, who landed in Camrose with a BU Terriers equipment bag on his shoulder, hopes not to carry any NCAA baggage into his second world junior championship.
“I’m just trying to focus on this tournament, making this team (and) having a good tournament,” he said. “We’ll deal with that when it comes later on, so for now, I’m just focused on the task at hand.
“We got a bronze (medal) last year, but you don’t aim for a bronze. You want the gold. We get another chance to go after it again this year. And that’s what we want. We want to hear our anthem at the end, (standing) on that blue-line, seeing our flag raised. That’s what we’re working towards.”
That was the scenario two years ago when the U.S. defeated Canada in overtime in the final at Saskatoon. Two players, goaltender Jack Campbell and forward Jason Zucker, are back from that gold-medal team, as is U.S. head coach Dean Blais.
One of Coyle’s teammates at Boston University, defenceman Adam Clendening, is part of the Team USA mix this year.
“He’s a big loss, but it might make our team stronger,” Clendening said of the Terriers. “You look at guys who play big roles already and they might play an even bigger role than what they have now. Guys are going to have to step up.
“It was a personal decision … whatever happens, happens with him, and we have to move on as a team. Nobody is throwing in the white flag.”
Whether it’s Team USA or the Sea Dogs, those clubs are getting a versatile player in Coyle, Clendening said.
“If he plays down the middle, he’s a good, strong centreman, responsible in his own zone. He can play both ways — very skilled offensively, but at the same time, doesn’t lack the defensive side of the puck. Just a good all-around player that can play in all situations.
“Same thing on the wing. Just a strong up-and-down guy that can grind it out, if you need it, or can play a skilled game. He’s very versatile.”
Coyle has left a BU program that’s reeling after its top scorer, Toronto native Corey Trivino, was kicked out of school last week after being arrested in connection with an alleged sexual assault against a female student.