Any Canadian athlete will tell you there is no greater feeling than putting on the Team Canada jersey and hearing the national anthem.
Three years ago, Derek Grant experienced that thrill when he donned the Maple Leaf and represented Canada West at the 2008 World Junior A Challenge in Camrose, Alta., winning a silver medal.
The patriotic emotions for playing for your country and the thrill of competing against one of the country's chief rivals led to an experience Grant won't forget.
The highlight was playing Russia," Grant said of an emotionally-charged 5-2 win in the preliminary round, to which the Abbotsford, B.C., native contributed a pair of power play goals. "It was phenomenal. The place was really loud and everyone was in Canada jerseys. Some of them may not have even been hockey fans, but they are cheering for you because you are Canadian."
Like so many of the players who came before him, and so many who have played in the tournament since, the World Junior A Challenge was an opportunity for Grant to test himself against the best in the world in international competition, an opportunity very few players get.
It is definitely something special, something you will never experience until you put on that Canadian jersey," he said of the feeling of representing his country.
The lone Langley Chief to represent Canada West, Grant will be watching from a distance this year as his former Junior A home welcomes the world for the 2011 World Junior A Challenge.
The 21-year-old is a long way from his junior hockey days as he readies for his first full season in the pro game.
A fourth-round pick of the Ottawa Senators in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft after posting 49 goals and 123 points in 92 games over two seasons with the Chiefs, Grant got his first taste of professional hockey in the spring with the Senators' AHL affiliate in Binghamton after leaving Michigan State University following his sophomore season.
He was a tall, skinny kid but he looked like he had a lot of skill and a lot of good offensive ability and instincts," Tim Murray, Ottawa's assistant general manager, said of the Senators' decision to draft Grant 119th overall.
Injured in Game 7 of the Senators' first-round series with Manchester, Grant watched from the sidelines as Binghamton claimed the Calder Cup as AHL champions.
He was fit and ready to go when the Calder Cup Final against the Houston Aeros was set to open, but with the team on such a roll and relatively healthy, the coaching staff was loathe to make any changes and Grant found himself a spectator.
It is probably more nerve-wracking sitting in the crowd than being on the ice," he admitted. "It was definitely hard to watch when you want to be playing."
Murray says that the 6-3, 197-pound power forward has come into his first training camp with the team well prepared, thanks in part to his 21-game audition with the Baby Sens.
It gave him a quick peek into what it takes to be a pro," Murray said.
He came in here with more confidence and worked hard and I think it is based on his experience with Binghamton last year."
Grant's assistant coach the past two seasons at Michigan State – where Grant led the team with 20 goals and 63 points in 76 games – sees plenty of positives in the burgeoning power forward.
He has a lot of upside in his development, in his hockey career," said Tom Newton. "His ability to handle the puck and to make plays are his strong points."
Grant is ready for the rigors of a full season of pro hockey, which is not always as glamorous as it may appear to outsiders, especially at the minor league level.
It can be pretty gruelling," he said. "As much as I wouldn't call it a job, it is work.
(Don't get me wrong), you are playing the game you love and you get paid to do it.
I don't think of it as a job, but it is a lot of long hours, and lots of travelling."
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