Head coach Darren Rumble has a plan to get Canada's players ready for the men's under-18 hockey championship — make them laugh.
After Hockey Canada quickley assembled the team in just a week, Rumble said he will use an unorthodox triathlon of events to quickly break the ice, improve communication and build team chemistry.
The first event has players wear blindfolds and try to skate down the ice and score on a net as their teammates shout instructions at them. The second is a straight forward ping-pong tournament and the third, the talent portion, is an American Idol-style singing competition.
"Guys have a good time, lots of laughs, and I've always found that for me the best team builders you don't even realize you're team building," said Rumble last week. "You're just having fun, having some laughs.
"If you had fun with it and you're laughing and you're going to talk about it the next day at the water cooler, those are the times that I've found have been the best team builders."
It's a necessary exercise for a team that has to come together very quickly.
Rumble had his first practice in Toronto on April 3 with only 12 players, including six underage skaters and a goalie brought in on an emergency basis so the team could run drills properly. Canada's first game of the world under-18 championship is against Latvia on Thursday in Poprad, Slovakia, giving him just 10 days to get everyone on the same page.
Hockey Canada executives have to plan several contingencies for the under-18 world championship every year because the tournament overlaps with the second round of the playoffs for all three of Canada's major junior leagues. Although they know who they'd like to play for Canada, they don't know who will be available until their club team is eliminated. Any holes in the roster are filled by 17-year-old players.
"It's a little bit bittersweet," said Maxime Comtois, who played for Canada in the tournament last year as a 17 year old and has returned after his Victoriaville Tigres were swept from the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League playoffs. "We're out of the playoffs, but it's nice to be here again.
"I had such an amazing experience here last summer and I'm looking forward to the tournament."
Rumble saved his "competition day," designed to break the ice and loosen everyone up, for when his full roster was assembled in Slovakia. As recently as April 4 — after training camp in Toronto had wrapped — 11 players were added to the team. On top of figuring out lines, that also meant keeping players in game shape despite some having rested for weeks while others were coming straight from an intense seven-game playoff series.
Despite all these challenges, the goal remains the same for Canada.
"We're putting the Canadian jersey on and we're playing for our country, so we obviously want to win a gold medal," said Rumble. "That's our goal, everybody's goal.
"While you're going through the process, climbing the mountain, just trying to get better every day. Starting with the core group and then adding players and getting them up to speed and hopefully peaking for the medal rounds."
Canada will be led by captain Jaret Anderson-Dolan of the Western Hockey League's Spokane Chiefs, with Comtois and Stelio Mattheos of the WHL's Brandon Wheat Kings acting as assistants.
Canada has only won the under-18 world championship three times since its inception in 1999, with the last gold medal coming in 2013. The Canadians won bronze in 2014 and 2015, getting shut out of the podium last year.
This year's preliminary round ends on April 18, with the playoffs starting on April 20.
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John Chidley-Hill, The Canadian Press