For most of the Canadian players stepping onto the ice at the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge, the tournament will be the first chance to wear a Team Canada jersey.
A select few, however, will be sporting the red and white for the second time and the experience they gained the first time around could prove invaluable.
Eleven of the 110 players representing the five Canadian regions at the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge played for Team Canada at the 2012 Winter Youth Olympic Games in Innsbruck, Austria, last January.
The motto of the Games, an inaugural multi-sport event featuring 1,058 athletes aged 14 to 18 from over 70 nations competing in 63 sporting competitions, was “Be part of it!” and forwards Adam Brooks, Eric Cornel, Reid Duke, Reid Gardiner, Ryan Gropp, Nicolas Hébert and Nathan Yetman, and defencemen Joe Hicketts, Brycen Martin, Brendan Nickerson, Ryan Pilon and Nathan Yetman were a big part of the squad bringing home a bronze medal.
Team bonding began at the outset of the trip with lengthy travel from Toronto to Germany to Austria and continued when they arrived on European soil. The players took in the opening ceremonies, attended winter sports on the top of a ski hill overlooking Innsbruck, practiced on an outdoor rink in a small mountain village, took in the cultural exhibits and carved up a storm creating ice sculptures.
Facing a nine-hour time difference and unfamiliar languages and customs, the players were forced to adapt themselves as quickly as possible.
That was also the case on the ice.
“Playing on bigger ice meant there was a lot of speed out there,” said Hicketts, a Pacific defenceman who wore the ‘C’ for Canada in Innsbruck. “The European teams were always in transition and trying to build their speed on the attack. Once we adjusted to that another major thing was the way the international refs called the games sometimes. We play a more physical game, so we always had to work on keeping our hands and elbows down.”
Hicketts, who patrols the blue-line for the WHL’s Victoria Royals, believes his Olympic experience has made him a more well-rounded player; one of his takeaways from the Games is to expect the unexpected at international events – even at breakfast.
“There were a lot of cultural differences being there,” said the Kamloops, B.C., native. “The people were unique in what they were wearing and how they acted. Oh and what they eat is a lot different than in Canada; sometimes it felt like things were half cooked or you’d get sandwiches for breakfast, it was quite different from pancakes and bacon for breakfast.”
For Brooks, a Winnipeg product who will represent West at the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge, the Winter Youth Olympic Games was “the most amazing experience of my life.”
Culturally, Brooks took note of how relaxed Austrians are compared to the daily grind in Canada where everyone always seems pressed for time. He said he’s been a calmer person since the Games, but he made sure his game stayed at a high tempo.
It’ll have to be with West facing three of the four participating European teams (Sweden, Finland and Russia) in Group A action beginning Dec. 29.
“Seeing all the other talent and playing styles from around the world helps you adjust your game,” said Brooks, a forward with the WHL’s Regina Pats. “We’ve seen those teams from our pool before and that’ll help me have a better understanding of what they’ll bring to their game.
“Those guys would try to stay on the perimeter and make you watch the puck and try to dangle around you,” he said of the speedy Europeans. “Guys here would just lower a shoulder and take it to the net, they’re going to try to dangle their way to the net and you can’t get caught watching.”
Both Hicketts and Brooks have Olympic bronze medals, and if they apply what they learned in Austria to their efforts in Quebec, one of them may just double their medal count.
At the very least, hopefully they avoid sandwiches for breakfast.