CALGARY — It’s tempting to believe a Canadian team bolstered by the NHL lockout will dominate the 2013 world junior hockey championships.
The 1995 and 2005 editions did so when lockouts those years made all of the country’s best 19-year-old players available to Canada. Neither team lost a game in the tournament.
But Canada faces significant barriers on the road to a gold medal this time, not the least of which is the distance the team must go to get it.
A Canadian team hasn’t travelled this far to a world junior championship since it was held in Moscow in 2001. This year’s tournament in Ufa, Russia, is another 1,160 kilometres and two time zones to the southeast.
Still, Canada will be considered a gold-medal contender again when the tournament opens Wednesday and wraps with the gold-medal game on Jan. 5.
Arguably six players on Canada’s roster would have played in the NHL this season if not for the lockout. Concerns over how a sudden end to the lockout could impact the lineup during the tournament faded when the NHL cancelled games until Jan. 14.
Canada opens against Germany on Boxing Day and also shares Pool B with Russia, Slovakia and the United States.
Along with the demanding travel, there are other factors Canada will have to overcome to win gold. The tournament has been held in North America the past four years, but this time Canada won’t have the support of the entire building behind them.
This Canadian team also lost important players to injury. Ryan Murray would have been a top-two defenceman, but suffered a season-ending shoulder injury prior to selection camp.
Forward Charles Hudon injured his back during pre-competition camp in Finland. He was replaced in the lineup by Mark McNeill, who had to be hastily summoned from Canada.
Canada’s run of 14 straight medals at the world junior championship is the envy of other countries, but so high is the Canadian standard in this tournament that the players consider a silver medal disappointing.
After a record-tying run of five straight gold from 2005 to 2009, Canada took silver the next two years and then bronze in the 2012 tournament held in Calgary and Edmonton.
The host Russians want that gold medal on home ice after losing it in overtime to Sweden in 2012.
Led by Nail Yakupov, the first pick in this year’s NHL draft by the Edmonton Oilers, Russia won this year’s six-game Subway Series versus the Canadian Hockey League for just the second time in its 10-year history.
Junior teams from Canada and Russia also played a hard-fought, four-game series in August commemorating the 40th anniversary of the 1972 summit series. After winning Game 4 in regulation, Canada needed to score in overtime to take the series.
Russia’s inclusion of Yakupov in their summer lineup also indicates how invested the country is in their junior team this year.
“We’re going to be playing Russia in Russia,” Canadian coach Steve Spott said.
“We fully see where they’re going and recognize how important that is to them.”
Russia has access to two goaltenders with previous experience in this tournament. Andrei Makarov of the Saskatoon Blades and Andre Vasilevski both saw ice time for the runner-up in 2012. Both goalies played in Russia’s 6-5 semifinal win over Canada in Calgary.
Canada had no incumbent goaltender this year and emerged from selection camp without a clear No. 1.
Their New Year’s Eve tilt versus Russia is the anticipated game of the preliminary round for Canada and one at a reasonable hour at home with a 9 a.m. ET start. Canada’s first three pool games are 4:30 a.m. ET starts.
Canada versus the U.S., on Dec. 30 is a significant game too. The Americans will be motivated to improve on their seventh-place result in 2012.
There’s always plenty of ill will and trash talking between the two countries. The players know each other well and are club teammates in some cases.
But if the Dec. 31 game against Russia determines first place in Pool B, Canada needs the win to get the bye to the semifinal and the extra day’s rest. The wider European ice surface will drain Canada’s legs.
The Swedes and Finns in Pool A pose significant challenges as well. The defending champion Swedes will have half a dozen players back from their gold-medal squad and the same coach behind their bench.
It’s easy to forget how close the Finns were to playing for gold in Alberta and they’ll have as many as 10 returnees. They were up 2-0 on the Swedes in the semifinal, but fell 3-2 in overtime.
While the returning Canadian players may feel they have a score to settle with Russia after the semifinal loss in Calgary, Spott says there are other threats in the tournament.
“For me, I look at the Americans and the Swedes and the Russians,” he said. “I put those guys collectively in the same group.
“They’re world-class teams and world-class countries and I have respect for all of them.”
The Czech Republic, Switzerland and Latvia round out Pool A. The winner in each pool gets the bye to the semifinal while the runner-up crosses over to meet the other pool’s third seed in the quarter-final. The bottom two countries in each pool fall to the relegation tournament.
Canada lacked depth at centre in 2012, but that position is the strength of the 2013 team thanks to the lockout.
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins of the Edmonton Oilers, Ryan Strome and Boone Jenner are premiere centres. Canada is so deep up the middle that Mark Scheifele is being asked to convert to right-wing on the top line.
Nugent-Hopkins, Scheifele and Jonathan Huberdeau give Canada an elite first line. There are scoring threats on all four lines, including 17-year-old forwards Nathan MacKinnon and Jonathan Drouin.
While making the Canadian team in a lockout year speaks to the talent of MacKinnon and Drouin, it also reflects a lack of talent depth among Canada’s 19-year-old forwards born in 1993.
Led by Dougie Hamilton and Scott Harrington, Canada does have enough depth on defence to compensate for the loss of Murray.
Whether it’s Malcolm Subban or Jordan Binnington who gets the nod as starting goaltender, Canada has won gold in the past because the goaltender makes saves he’s not supposed to and his confident body language helps his teammates play freely in front of them.
Even though Canada’s world junior games aren’t at viewer-friendly times at home, hockey fans starved for high-quality games should keep the interest high.
After three years without gold and with the weapons they have on their team, Canada’s players are aware of the high expectations on them in Ufa.
“There’s going to be a lot of attention,” Scheifele predicted. “I think that extra public pressure definitely adds motivation to everyone’s fire.”