Playing in front of Winnipeg Jets fans who are over the moon about getting their NHL team back was a dress rehearsal for Mark Scheifele.
The atmosphere in the three games Scheifele played at Winnipeg’s MTS Centre will be comparable to the charged environment in Edmonton and Calgary during the 2012 world junior hockey championships starting Dec. 26.
“If I were to play in that, it will probably be very similar and be very cool to be able to play for Team Canada and be able to wear that jersey for world juniors,” Scheifele said Monday from Barrie, Ont.
“Just watching it growing up, it’s crazy, especially when it’s in Canada.”
Winnipeg’s decision to return the 18-year-old forward to the Ontario Hockey League’s Barrie Colts is a boon for the country’s junior team. Scheifele is expected to play a prominent role for Canada in the tournament.
“He’s an offensive talent,” Hockey Canada head scout Kevin Prendergast said Monday. “From our standpoint, it’s huge to have him back. He has all the attributes we need right now because of all the players who are still in the NHL.”
With centres Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (Edmonton), Ryan Johansen (Columbus) and Sean Couturier (Philadelphia) still with their respective NHL clubs, Scheifele and Ryan Strome of the Niagara IceDogs are currently Canada’s top two centremen.
“Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is playing really well and also Sean Couturier is playing really good with Philly too, so we’ll see how they pan out,” Scheifele said. “I wish them all the best luck and not just because I want to be on the Canadian team. Hopefully they stick.”
Scheifele played between wingers Matt Puempel of the Peterborough Petes and Tyler Toffoli of the Ottawa 67’s at the junior team’s summer camp in Edmonton.
But if Johansen remains in the NHL, Canadian head coach Don Hay will need a suitable replacement centre for impressive wingers Jonathan Huberdeau of Saint John Sea Dogs and Mark Stone of the Brandon Wheat Kings.
Selection camp will be held in Calgary in December.
Canada, a silver medallist the last two years, opens the world junior championship in Edmonton versus Finland. Canada plays its pool games in Edmonton’s Rexall Place.
All medal games will be held in Calgary’s Scotiabank Saddledome.
Scheifele, six foot two and 184 pounds, appeared in seven games for Winnipeg. He’s relieved to have cleared the hurdle of scoring his first NHL goal before his return to Barrie.
He scored in Toronto last Wednesday. Scheifele, pronounced SHIFE’-lee, anticipated the arrival of the souvenir puck.
“It’s being shipped to me as we speak,” he said.
The Kitchener, Ont., native was drafted seventh overall in June with much fanfare as Winnipeg prepared for the return of an NHL team after a 15-year absence.
Scheifele led OHL rookies in scoring last season with 22 goals and 53 assists in 66 games. The Colts are coincidentally coached by former Jet and Hockey Hall of Famer Dale Hawerchuk.
Scheifele raised his draft stock further at the world under-18 championships in April with six goals and two assists in seven games for Canada. That helped him earn an invitation to the under-20 team’s summer camp.
“I’d probably describe it as a whirlwind,” Scheifele said of the past year. “I was happy I was able to stick with Winnipeg as long as I did and given the opportunity.
“It’s definitely my favourite building to play in. The fans are screaming so loud.
“Especially the first game, being my first NHL game and getting to play in the first Winnipeg Jets game since they’ve been back was an honour and historic and something I’ll remember with a great feeling.”
After experiencing the bright lights and big cities of the NHL, teenagers often feel let down upon their return to the junior ranks.
The prospect of playing in the world junior tournament, which will be watched by millions of Canadians, helps take the sting out of the demotion.
“I’m sure everyone when they get sent down is a bit disappointed and I was too when I was told the news, but you have to think of it as everything happens for a reason,” Scheifele said. “You can’t get down on yourself. You’re playing the game of hockey and something you love to do.
“I’m going to keep working hard and hopefully make that world junior team because that will definitely make the pain easier.”
Nugent-Hopkins, the first overall pick in this year’s draft, has five goals and two assists in seven games for the Oilers. He’s making a case to play in the NHL as an 18-year-old.
As of Monday, the 19-year-old Couturier had two goals and two assists in seven games with the Flyers, who were to face Toronto at night. Johansen, also 19, has a goal in five games for Columbus.
Other teenagers currently in the NHL and eligible to play for Canada are 19-year-old wingers Brett Connelly (Tampa Bay), Devante Smith-Pelly (Anaheim) and Brett Bulmer (Minnesota), as well as defenceman Erik Gudbranson (Florida).