Last week in Edmonton and Fort McMurray, Alberta, Hockey Canada conducted it’s annual World Junior Championship summer development camp. Canada will be looking to bounce back after suffering defeat in the Gold medal game against Russia in the 2011 IIHF World Juniors in Buffalo, New York. Canada had a 3-0 lead going into the third period of the Gold medal game but five unanswered goals by the Russians put an end to any hopes of Canada collecting their 16th World Junior Championship. It was truly a disappointment for Hockey Canada and for all hockey fans across our wonderful nation. Canada is known to be a hockey powerhouse especially at the World Junior competition collecting 5 straight championships from 2005 to 2009. In 2011 at the WJHC, Canada was not considered to be a major contender to win the tournament. This past year Canada did not have the talent like in year’s past but with the support from a sea of Red in the HSBC arena in Buffalo, New York, team Canada was able to prove everyone wrong and make the final. As the tournament progressed and Canada knocked off the host nation, the United States, people began to believe that Canada was again a heavy favorite to win the Gold. This annual tournament is truly a grind and you must play every single minute like it is the last because if you don’t... well we know what can happen. Canada laid back for one period of hockey and it cost them the ultimate prize. Now looking ahead into 2012 and the World Junior Championship returning to Canadian soil in Calgary, Alberta, Team Canada will be looking to end a two-year Gold medal drought. Hockey Canada has set the bar high for this upcoming WJHC in 2012 hoping that team Canada can break this drought and bring home their 16th World Junior Hockey Championship. The quest for 16 began this past week at the summer development camp. It is the starting point of the long journey to the 2012 World Junior Hockey Championships. The top junior hockey prospects in all of Canada came together for one week of intense training and each were given the opportunity to showcase their talents to impress Team Canada coaches. Departing from last year’s team was the 2011 WJHC leading scorer Brayden Schenn and last year’s team captain Ryan Ellis. Both hope to crack their NHL squads and are no longer eligible to participate in the World Junior tournaments. Many of the players in attendance at the summer development camp were top draft picks of NHL teams in this past June’s NHL entry draft. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is the most intriguing story for Canada as last year he was unable to make the Canadian squad. He went on to have a phenomenal season with the Red Deer Rebels and was selected first overall by the Edmonton Oilers this past June in the draft. While his talent definitely shines he is still trying to bulk up so that he can attempt to make the Oilers roster for 2011-2012. If he fails to do so, it wouldn’t be a surprise if he gets the call to come and play for Canada at the WJHC in 2012. This year Canada should not lack superstar talent. Along with Nugent-Hopkins Canada has several other 1st round draft picks including Jonathan Huberdeau, Nathan Beaulieu, Sean Couturier, Dougie Hamilton, Ryan Strome, Matt Puempel, Stuart Percy, Jamie Oleksiak, Ryan Murphy, Joe Morrow, and Phillip Danault. With this talent all on one team Canada would be a heavy favorite going into the 2012 tournament but the odds are that a majority of these players are going to make their respective NHL squads and will not represent Canada at the World Juniors. Fans on the outside looking in have high expectations for team Canada year in and year out but they have to understand that these are still young men and having such expectations put their shoulders can both be good and bad. These kids are still learning and developing their skills. As much as we want these young athletes to play for Canada to help us win we have to understand that these hockey players are fighting for their true dream of playing in the NHL. These great young players certainly don’t mind playing for their country as it is indeed a true honor but the fact is that the World Juniors may truly be only a tune up for what they may experience in the NHL. Especially if you’re a Canadian hockey player, playing in front of huge crowds with enormous pressure, that certainly helps your development and allows you feel calm and confident once you reach the NHL. This may be why our Canadian hockey players have such enormous success once they reach the big stage because as kids and young athletes they are performing under the pressure of having an entire nation on their back. I would make a bet that all Canadian hockey players who have represented Canada in the WJHC will say that playing for Canada at any level of competition has improved their game and has made them a better hockey player. As the days go by and we inch closer to the 2012 WJHC in Calgary, Alberta I think Canadians truly need to thank Hockey Canada President/CEO, Bob Nicholson for all the great work he has done to make Canada a predominant hockey country. If not for him placing such high expectations on our nation and on our players we would not be a top hockey nation and our players would certainly not be where they are today as the top sports athletes in the entire world. Not to mention we would not be 15 time World Junior Hockey Champions. There is a standard for whoever puts on that red Maple Leaf. It represents our nation but beyond that it represents greatness. Thinking back about all the phenomenal athletes who have dawned the Maple Leaf it truly shows that the World Juniors is where career’s take off. Jonathan Toews had his first major hockey moment on the biggest stage against the United States in the 2007 World Juniors semi-final. He scored three shootout goals to advance team Canada to their third of five consecutive World Junior titles. Sidney Crosby another notable Canadian hockey superstar, got his first major looks when he competed in his first World Junior Championship at the age of sixteen. As a teenager he became the youngest player to ever score a goal in the WJHC. He went on the next year at age seventeen to win the Gold for Canada and begin their run of five consecutive World Junior titles. Greatness begins at a young age and the reason I believe Canada is such a hockey powerhouse is because we give these young men an opportunity to experience what it is like to be on the big stage and we give every young hockey player in this country the opportunity to succeed in the sport that they love. At the 2012 WJHC 22 young men will have an opportunity to shine and showcase their talents in a legitament situation representing their country. As the great Phil Esposito said after the 1972 Summit series against Russia “...we did it because we love our country, not for any other reason...we came because we love Canada”. Each player that has dawned the Maple Leaf has felt this way. Being a Canadian athlete is special and for those 22 men who will put that jersey on and put the country on their shoulders in 2012, they better know what rich hockey history they are representing. The task is tough but if these 22 men love their country they will certainly give it everything they have to help team Canada to victory and begin another World Junior Championship title run. Each and every Canadian can learn from the great Wayne Gretzky. As he once said when describing his game “ Some people skate to the puck. I skate to where the puck is going to be”. Each player can certainly learn and improve their game from this but for Canadians we can also learn from this. We need to “skate” to where we are going to be in the future and we need to think about the greatness of Canadian hockey. We know that we will win World Junior championships again and that Canadian athletes are certainly set up to succeed in whatever sport they play. In 2012 at the WJHC it isn’t just about the quest for 16 but beyond that it is about the development of our great young hockey players who will develop into the great legends of the game. When team Canada hits the ice at the World Juniors it isn’t just about those 22 men on that bench but it is about a nation and it is about our rich hockey history that spans way back to 1886 when the first ever Canadian hockey Federation was formed. Expectations will always be high and expect them to increase as we move further into the future. The expectations for team Canada will never change. The only thing that will change is the names on the back of those Red and White jerseys and this year provides yet another opportunity for a superstar to be born.
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