After months of waiting and preparing, it's time to get down to business for Tim Hunter and National Junior Team.
Hunter -- the Moose Jaw Warriors head coach who will serve the same role for Team Canada at the World Junior Championships in Vancouver and Victoria beginning Dec. 26 – and his Hockey Canada scouting staff have whittled down the vast pool of prospective players to 34, who will now go through the nerve-wracking process known as the Team Canada selection camp.
The camp runs from Dec. 10-14 in Victoria followed by three exhibition game against the U SPORTS All-Stars, after which the final roster will be trimmed to 22 players.
Just getting to the point Team Canada is now, though, was quite the challenge.
“Yesterday was really exciting because we finally had the players in place for our camp and that's the start of the next phase, which is picking the team and getting down to the 22 guys who will represent Canada,” Hunter said during a recent press conference outside the Warriors dressing room. “So it's exciting and we're just looking for five days in Vancouver to pick the team and go after the gold medal.”
With so many quality players to choose from, Hunter and Hockey Canada have been hard at work making sure the best players for the job were brought into camp. Warriors general manager Alan Millar was also part of the process, working with Hockey Canada head scout Brad McEwen to make the selections.
“They watch a lot of hockey and it's really hard to pick the hairs to select the best 34 players in Canada because there's a lot of good hockey players in Canada,” Hunter said. “It's a tough job and I'm glad it's not my job.”
The scouting staff would likely say the same about Hunter when it comes to the next phase of the World Junior team process – choosing the final team and, eventually, making cuts.
“We had a criteria of players we want to invite and will be at the selection camp, now we have to split them and find the guys who can fit into the way we want to play,” Hunter explained when describing the process. “That will be more my job than anyone else's job, trying to fit the guys in and let them play to their role and their identity. We want them to play the same way and if they do they'll be on the team. We have 34 guys who are capable of doing that.”
Moose Jaw Warriors fans who've seen the 2018-19 edition of the team will likely be familiar with what they see from Team Canada. Hunter plans to take many of the systems currently in place on the local Western Hockey League squad and implement them on the National Team – the kind of experiment most coaches would kill for given the quality of players at his disposal.
“I've done a lot of things here in Moose Jaw that I've kind of garnered from Hockey Canada and things that we've learned over the two years with (Team Canada coaches) Dominic Ducharme and Joel Bouchard,” Hunter said. “Some have worked, some haven't and that's part of coaching, being a forward thinker or innovator and that's what I try and do. I've had some success with it and we've had some success with it here in Moose Jaw this season and it's been nice to see us heading in the right direction and it's the right type of hockey to play. That's what we'll be playing at the World Junior Championship.”
The end result? Speed, speed and more speed.
“We want a team that's tough to play against and a team that plays fast everywhere, not just with the puck, but without the puck,” Hunter continued. “And a team that thinks the game very fast as well... it'll be trying to gain speed in the game everywhere, whether it's three, five, seven, 10 per cent, it'll be hard to dictate, but that's what we're going to do, we're going to try and play the game faster everywhere and that's not always easy to do but we're sure going to try.”
Hunter played his cards close to his chest when it came to suggesting which players might be on the team – even going so far as to say standout defenceman and Warriors captain Josh Brook is simply one of 12 players vying for a spot, even if he has played exceptionally impressively through the first two months of the season.
One thing is certain in this time of uncertainty, though: whoever gets a chance to where the Maple Leaf in Vancouver and Victoria beginning Dec. 26 against Denmark will be in for a thrill of a lifetime – something Hunter knows all about after winning gold as an assistant coach in 2018 and silver in 2017.
“It's a challenge all these young men dream of, waking up on Boxing Day and being on the World Junior team and competing with a chance to win a gold medal,” Hunter said. “That's a challenge we all want because we want the gold medal. I don't look at it as pressure at all, I look at it as if we want to be able to play at home, that sea of fans in Toronto and Montreal when we won silver.
“Our players really feed off that environment and energy from the fans, so I know Vancouver and Victoria will be there to support us and we're looking forward to being in that environment.”