Canada’s road to world junior gold starts with countless kilometres and conference calls

Sam Reinhart skates during Canada's world junior summer camp. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes
Sam Reinhart skates during Canada's world junior summer camp. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

Ryan Jankowski has seen 62 games since September. He knows the exact count, because each time he fires up his computer to input a new scouting report, it greets him with the latest number.

As Hockey Canada’s head scout, he’s travelled from coast to coast to watch the best players available for the upcoming world junior championship.

“It’s been full-on since Sept. 15,” said Jankowski, who joined Hockey Canada last year after almost a decade as a NHL scout. “Where we try to gain a lot of information is at the NHL rookie tournaments because those players are in a very similar situation as they are at the world juniors, which is out of their comfort zone. They’re playing against bigger, older, stronger guys, so that’s really where the season kicks off.”

Jankowski handles which players get invites — expected to be announced next Monday — to the final selection camp in December. He’s helped in the process by Bruce Hamilton the owner, president and general manager of the Kelowna Rockets owner who is also part of Hockey Canada’s program of excellence. Unlike last year where they set a limit on the number of invites (25), this year the duo is letting the players dictate how many of them deserve another viewing.

“Ryan puts in a ton of time on the road and I think last year was a real learning year for him and it certainly was for me in just understanding the whole program,” said Hamilton, who like Jankowski joined the national junior team management group in the summer of 2013.

It’s Jankowski who takes the criticism when (insert your favourite player here) doesn’t garner an invitation to the final selection camp expected to start on Dec. 11. That’s the rocky terrain Hockey Canada’s staff have to navigate while the junior team looks for its first gold medal since 2009 and its first medal – period – since grabbing bronze in 2012.

And each year without hardware sends the country – those for whom junior hockey is only a once–a-year occurrence – into a tizzy about the state of the game.

“We’ve done the due diligence, we’ve seen the games and we’ve done our homework,” said Jankowski of the process. “I know there’s going to be some pissed-off CHL teams here and there, and some pissed-off NHL teams here and there, but we have to do what we think is best.

“Second-guess me all you want, but hopefully we win and that puts all the second guessing to bed.”

The 40-year-old is still old school in his scouting. Jankowski, a former assistant GM of the New York Islanders, believes in seeing every player in person. It’s only at the rink, he says, that he’s able to network, gather additional information and see the small details that might not be captured on video.

“Every decision is made, really at the end of the day, with my own eyes,” said Jankowski.

That sounds like a subjective process.

“It is,” said Jankowski. “And yet that’s really the way we do things. You can look at points, you can look at stats, you can look at numbers but at the end of the day it’s the little things you do that make a difference at the world junior level and how you can raise your game on the world stage.”

Hamilton feels the same way, taking time out of his duties with the Rockets – one of the top teams in the Western Hockey League – to travel to Ontario and Quebec for scouting trips on the side. The two are very steadfast in their own assessments and there’s no group think happening during games.

“He has his opinion and I have mine and at the end of the game we share them,” said Hamilton. “He does a lot more of the searching out on the players and what kind of people they are and brings that back to us.”

Hockey Canada head scout Ryan Jankowski. (Photo Dave Sandford/Getty Images)
Hockey Canada head scout Ryan Jankowski. (Photo Dave Sandford/Getty Images)

That us is the management group that oversees the world junior program – Jankowski, Hamilton, Hockey Canada vice-president of hockey operations Scott Salmond, head coach Benoit Groulx and his assistants. Hockey Canada uses RinkNet scouting software – a popular tool among NHL and junior hockey teams – to aggregate their reports on players.

The group holds a conference call every two weeks to go over the team’s depth chart – review scouting reports, players who might need another look and darkhorses who begin to emerge once the season starts.

“We do the conference calls so that we’re all on the same page and it gives everyone a chance to talk about what they’ve seen and where we’re at on our depth chart and where we are with our NHL players,” explains Jankowski.

According to Salmond, talks are still ongoing with NHL clubs about the potential return of players to Canada’s world junior side. Realistically at this point, however, Ottawa’s Curtis Lazar, Vancouver’s Bo Horvat and New York’s Anthony Duclair are the only legitimate contenders to be loaned to the tournament.

The group spent a lot of time together recently travelling across the country to see Canada’s best participate in the Subway Super Series. Since they are all in constant contact via email, texts and phone calls, Jankowski says the final decisions rarely end up in heated arguments.

“It’s not like in the movies where you’re yelling at each other, ‘No! I want this friggin’ guy!’ I don’t think you ever get to that point,” said Jankowski. “You’ve had so much communication throughout that there really are no surprises when we get to the end.”

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t debates on the merits of one player over another. Everyone has a favourite player they want to champion and picking the final roster for the world junior team is no different.

“Probably where it gets more interesting is when we have a coach or an assistant coach that has a player they’re leaning towards a bit more, but that’s just human tendency,” said Hamilton.

“The most important thing is to express your opinion and convince the rest that you’re confident this guy can do what you think he can do. You have to make a decision that’s in the best interest of the program and not worrying about any personal agendas or whether there are 10 from the west and only six from Ontario or Quebec. We don’t care where the regions are, we want the 22 best players.”

That means putting faith in the long-term process – the years in which they’ve seen a player develop, rather than just what happens at the final selection camp. Last year Salmond said the decision to go with a smaller camp was to make sure they “don’t get fooled” by four days of good play versus the big picture of a player’s growth. That’s still the case heading into this year’s camp.

“To make decisions on what you see at camp is very narrow minded,” said Jankowski. “Some players come in nervous and others come in with no expectations and they can fool you in a short setting.”

Both Jankowski and Hamilton say there isn’t something specific they’re looking for, though they want world-class players as opposed to just very good CHL ones. That means not only taking the ones with the most skill, but also the ones who will adapt to roles outside of their comfort zone, step up in adversity and serve very specific team needs.

“It’s one thing to have 12 skilled forwards but if no one can play the (penalty kill) that’s obviously very dangerous,” said Jankowski. “We have to make sure we have enough of those guys through the lineup.”

And that means extra trips to evaluate prospective players injured earlier this year, most notably Jake Virtanen (shoulder surgery), Samuel Morin (fractured jaw), Morgan Klimchuk (wrist), Nick Baptiste (shoulder), and Shea Theodore (elbow). Star forward Connor McDavid, out with a broken bone in his hand, is expected to be ready to start the tournament on Dec. 26 when Canada faces Slovakia in Montreal.

“This year it’s been a little bit of a challenge because there have been so many injuries,” said Jankowski. “Thankfully with the exception of probably Sam Bennett (shoulder surgery), none of them are long-term that impact us at the tournament.”

Jankowski says it’s important to see the club teams not only for evaluation, but so that he can give Groulx an idea of what situations the player is used to in a game situation. Does he play on the power play? Is he double shifted? Or used to playing 30 minutes a night?

It’s a relentless pursuit to help Canada make it back to the top of the tournament - not only for the players, but for the management staff as well.

“Hey, I can tell you this,” said Hamilton with a laugh about his job. “If you don’t win, you don’t get to come again. One thing about Hockey Canada if it’s gold you can stay in it, if it isn’t you’re out.”

Sunaya Sapurji is the Junior Hockey Editor at Yahoo! Sports.
Email: | Twitter @Sunayas