CALGARY — One by one, the five players dismissed from Team Canada’s camp made their way up the stairs from their hotel’s basement meeting room to face the media.
Their suitcases, carried up by Hockey Canada media director Andre Brin, preceded their arrival.
Let go in the first round of cuts Wednesday were forwards Tyler Graovac, Sean Monahan, Francis Beauvillier and defencemen Adam Pelech and Derrick Pouliot.
The players answered a few questions in front of
the amassed media -- television cameras, photographers, print and radio reporters -- before
being shuttled out the hotel’s back door and into a waiting van that would take them to the airport and the flight home to rejoin their respective Canadian Hockey League clubs.
It was quick, but far from painless.
“I’ve never been so nervous in my life,” said Pouliot, who will head back to the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks. “You’re just sitting there waiting and hoping you don’t get that phone call. It’s pretty tough.”
There was something sordid about clamouring to hear teenaged players talk about their crushed dreams. But this is Canada, where the World Junior Hockey Championship has become a must-watch event over the Christmas holidays. In a hockey season that so far hasn't included the National Hockey League as its owners and players try to find common ground on a new collective bargaining agreement, the already-intense scrutiny around the Canadian junior team has been turned up yet another notch.
“It’s the worst day, for everybody involved,” said Brin, who has been bringing the released players out to face the media for the last 12 years. “None worse for the player. I don’t enjoy it, but I understand it – obviously they’re getting that type of news and then we’re bringing them out to the media. I think 99 percent of the time, they’re fantastic. They’re classy and they show what kind of individuals they are, which it doesn’t necessarily make it easier, but it shows what kind of kids we have in our system.”
He said Hockey Canada’s reason for making the cuts such a cruel, public spectacle is because the media wants it that way.
“There’s nothing you can do to make it pleasant,” said Brin. “The media are the ones that complain and the media are the ones that are there, so there’s no way to do this well. If we were to say, ‘You know what, we agree’ and let the players go in silence without talking to the media, there would be complaints. And then we bring them (out to the media) and there’s complaints. Every year there’s more and more media that want to cover it… I understand the media has a job to do… but you can’t have it both ways.”
Do crying, dejected teens really make for good TV? Does playing for your country have to turn into a Survivor-style reality show?
“Those are really unpleasant meetings,” said Team Canada head coach Steve Spott. “Every one of these young men are world-class players and character people, and to have to look them eye-to-eye and to tell them that the opportunity for them isn’t going to be there this year is difficult.
“There’s not another way to put it other than being unpleasant.”
Spott said his meetings with those cut were kept short and to the point.
“It’s brief,” said Spott. “Ultimately I don’t think they’re listening to very much and that’s understandable.”
The final round of cuts is expected to be made on Thursday evening.
“You’re never prepared for it and you don’t want it to happen,” said Pouliot of being sent home. “But it’s in the back of your mind and there’s a lot of good (defencemen) at this camp. The coaches had to make the decisions and unfortunately I was one of the guys that was let go.”
The cuts came after the Canadian were handily beaten 4-1 by the University of Alberta Golden Bears, a team made up of many former Western Hockey League players. Before the game, all the players were told to have their bags packed and ready to go in the event they were let go.
“It’s a quick turnaround for the flights home,” said Sudbury Wolves defenceman Frankie Corrado, who survived the first round. “I’m just hoping for the best and hope I don’t get that phone call.”
There are now 18 forwards, 10 defencemen and four goaltenders battling for the remaining 23 roster spots. Spott held 11 veterans – the likes of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Ryan Strome, Dougie Hamilton and Jonathan Huberdeau -- out of the lineup on Wednesday since those players are expected to be going to Ufa, Russia for the tournament. Defenceman Xavier Ouellet, who has been recovering from an ankle sprain, was also held out of the game.
According to Spott, the players on the bubble remaining in camp will have to show him more during their game on Thursday afternoon in order to avoid the same fate as the jettisoned brethren. He held a players’ meeting after the cuts to tell them what he expected.
“It’s to basically talk about opportunity,” said Spott. “You don’t want to have any regrets. You want to leave your game out on the ice and play as hard as you can because obviously (Thursday) more decision have to be made.”
Still, for those who weren’t able to survive the first 48 hours in camp, the process wasn’t necessarily an opportunity lost. Pelech, the first player to make the walk up the stairs and out the hotel door, put his disappointment in perspective.
“It’s tough, but I’m still friends with all these guys,” said the Erie Otters defenceman. “I’m going to be home and I’m going to be cheering for them, so it’s not the worst thing.”