Battling lack of game time, Team Canada ramps up preparations for world juniors

·4 min read

In a normal year Jamie Drysdale would have already played around 30 games as a defenceman for the Ontario Hockey League's Erie Otters.

Of course, there is nothing normal about 2020.

Like most of the players on Canada's roster at this year's 2021 IIHF world junior championship, Drysdale hasn't played a competitive game since March, when the country's three major junior hockey leagues were shut down over concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic.

"It's very different," said the 18-year-old from Toronto who was picked sixth overall by the Anaheim Ducks in this year's NHL draft.

"Not playing the game in seven or eight months could really take a toll on you. We did a good job in camp doing everything we could to get our bodies back in game shape and our minds back in game shape as well."

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Getting ready for this year's world juniors has been a "different ballgame" for everyone, but especially for goaltenders, said Taylor Gauthier, one of the team's three goalies.

"Shooters, in the summer, they can shoot pucks, pretty much practice all the skills required to play in a game," said the 19-year-old Calgary native who plays for the Prince George Cougars of the Western Hockey League. "For a goalie, it's a little different.

"You have to get back on the ice, and then you have to get used to seeing the puck again, get used to reading movements and reading plays."

Tournament prep underway

Team Canada held a training camp in Red Deer, Alta., before travelling to Edmonton to join nine other teams in a bubble.

The tournament is scheduled to begin Christmas Day with no fans in Rogers Place. Canada's first game is Dec. 26 against Germany.

The Canadians will be limited to one exhibition game on Dec. 23 against Russia. Their scheduled Dec. 21 exhibition game against Sweden was cancelled because of positive coronavirus test results on the Swedish team.

The WHL has delayed its plan to begin playing Jan. 8. The OHL is looking at starting a 40-game season beginning Feb. 4. The Quebec Major Junior Hockey League began play in October but has decided to close until Jan. 3 due to COVID-19 issues.

While Canadian teams have been idle, many junior teams in Europe have continued to play games.

"It's something that we could possibly use as an excuse, but at the end of the day we know the talent that our team possess," Gauthier said. "Come Boxing Day we're all going to be in game shape.

"The factor that other countries have been playing for a certain period of time, I don't think that will come into play very much."

Michael Dyck, a Team Canada assistant coach, said avoiding injuries after a long layoff was one of the priorities when training camp opened Nov. 16.

"It's something we had to wean ourselves into," he said. "We wanted to hit the ground running, but at the same time we were very mindful of their hips, groins, their hamstrings and being put into a really competitive environment after not being in a competitive environment for a quite some time."

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Drysdale said playing inter-squad games helped the team physically and mentally.

"Seeing plays that you haven't seen in a while, getting that mental side of the game back, your reads back," said Drysdale, who helped Canada win a gold medal in last year's tournament.

"It's nice [to] block a shot again. It's nice to just give a hit, take a hit."

Pandemic challenges

The camp underwent a 14-day quarantine after two players and one non-core staff member tested positive for the COVID-19 virus.

"It's funny," said Dyck, head coach of the WHL's Vancouver Giants. "We got back going again, we played a couple of games before heading into Edmonton, and it honestly didn't take long for these guys to get their timing back and shake some of the rust off.

"It's a challenge that we knew we would have to encounter, and I think the guys have a done a really good job dealing with it."

Drysdale said Canada may show some rust against Germany.

"No one is going to be perfect," he said. "It's the first real game we'll play together. Everyone will have a lot of energy and be ready to go.

"It's not going to be a perfect game, I can guarantee you that. Mistakes are going to be made. But as the same time, we're a team. We're going to stick together and get through all of it together."

There also will be some butterflies.

"Regardless of whether I've been playing for three or four months or not, I think there'll be some nerves," Gauthier said. "It's the world juniors. It's a moment all of us have dreamed of since we were young.

"It's good to be nervous and it's good to feel those pressures. Just embrace it and feel lucky and fortunate that you're able to play, because right now, there's no one playing hockey."