Canada's preparation for world junior hockey championship continues to fluctuate

·4 min read

A Canadian team already short on game reps ahead of the world junior men's hockey championship in Edmonton must recalibrate yet again with the cancellation of one of its two pre-tournament games.

Wednesday's exhibition game against Russia is the only time Canada, limited to intrasquad games so far, will play against anyone other than themselves before the host country's Boxing Day opener against Germany.

Canada's pre-tournament game Monday against Sweden at Rogers Place came off the schedule.

During a mandatory four-day quarantine for all countries upon arrival in Canada, two Swedish staff members tested positive for the COVID-19 virus.

Both of Sweden's pre-tournament games were cancelled. The players were released from extended quarantine to skate Monday, but the two staff remembers must continue isolating until Sunday.

The majority of the German team is quarantined until Thursday because eight players tested positive upon arrival in Edmonton. Germany's pre-tournament games were also called off.

The International Ice Hockey Federation said in a statement Monday there were no new reported cases involving players, but a German staff member has tested positive and must quarantine until Dec. 30.

So Canada is certainly not the only country in the 10-team tournament Dec. 25 to Jan. 5 with preparation that's been fits and starts.

In the interests of defending the gold medal, Canada's dearth of real games is no small matter when the players' seasons, or lack thereof, and an abbreviated selection camp are also taken into account.

Canada's players were confined to their hotel rooms for 14 days in the middle of selection camp in Red Deer, Alta., because two tested positive for the virus.

Four exhibition games against university-team players were cancelled. Two intrasquad matches before quarantine and another two after is the sum total of Canada's game action to date.

Facing a real foe forges on-ice chemistry and nails down which defensive pairings and line combinations work well together.

"Our practices have been great, but nothing can replace a game," Canadian assistant coach Michael Dyck acknowledged.

"There's situations in a game that you're only going to see in games and not in practices. We try to simulate as much as we can, but we certainly miss playing games."

Canada's coaching staff will also have less goaltending data that selection-camp and pre-tournament games normally provide in terms of who should be the tournament starter.

That's of particular importance for the host country in the 2021 under-20 men's championship because Taylor Gauthier, Devon Levi and Dyland Garand haven't played in the tournament previously.

Going further back, 20 of Canada's 25 players haven't played a real game in months.

Both the Ontario and Western major junior leagues postponed the start of their 2020-21 seasons until 2021 because of the pandemic.

"You just want to get back to playing games (when) you've been off for so long, I think eight months or so," said forward Connor McMichael of Ajax, Ont.

"So we're looking forward to playing a game, but we knew there could be difficulties coming into this.

"You've just got to deal with what's put in front of you. We're just focused on Wednesday now and we're excited."

Depending on the COVID-19 situation and restrictions in their respective countries, the number of games players from other countries have under their belts this season varies greatly.

Russian defenceman Semyon Chistyakov, for example, has played 28 KHL games with Omsk.

Canada gets its first real measure of itself Wednesday against the Russians before opening the tournament against a German opponent that might also consider itself a bit of a mystery.

"There's been a lot of adjustments we've had to make since we started this journey," Dyck said.

"I really like the way we've handled it. Even without playing a game, we're going to get stronger and we're going to get tighter as a group. I really like the way the guys have handled the instability up to this point."

A practice instead of a game Monday is preferable to more time holed up in hotel rooms. Canada must make the most of ice time it gets ahead of the tournament, Dyck said.

"What's in our control is our level of preparation, work ethic and intensity," he said. "That goes not only for the players, but for the coaching staff as well."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 21, 2020.

Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press