TANNER PEARSON UNKNOWN NO LONGER, WILL PLAY FOR CANADA'S JUNIOR HOCKEY TEAM
CALGARY – Tanner Pearson agrees with the labels late-bloomer, sleeper, dark horse and unknown
The 19-year-old from Kitchener, Ont., was ignored in the NHL draft in June. He received no invitations in the summer to an NHL rookie camp.
The Barrie Colts took Pearson in the second-last round (267th overall) of the Ontario Hockey League draft
when he was 16.
Pearson never played on a Canadian under-18 team or for Ontario in the world under-17 challenge. He wasn't invited to the Canadian junior hockey team's summer camp in August.
So the left-winger has basically made the Canadian junior team as a walk-on.
“If someone would have told me at the beginning of the year I would play for Canada at the world juniors I would have shook my head and laughed,” Pearson said Thursday after Canada's first practice as a team.
“If you want to call me a late bloomer, go for it. The truth is, I kind of was a late bloomer. It probably wasn't until the past year and a half where I started to click and play what I knew I could play.”
The 22 players named to the team the previous day skated at Calgary's Canada Olympic Park before heading to Banff, Alta. They'll train and participate in team-building activities in the mountain park town for the next several days.
Canada returns to Calgary on Monday for an exhibition game versus Finland at the Saddledome.
They head to Red Deer, Alta., on Dec. 22 for an exhibition game against Switzerland. Canada's final warm-up game Dec. 23 is in Edmonton's Rexall Place versus Sweden.
Canada opens the 2012 world junior hockey championship Dec. 26 in Edmonton against Finland.
Head coach Don Hay warned it was too soon to read anything into his line combinations in his team's first practice Thursday.
Forwards Jonathan Huberdeau (foot) and Quinton Howden (concussion symptoms) didn't participate in it, although Huberdeau did skate on his own afterwards.
Hay says Huberdeau won't likely be ready to play in Monday's exhibition game.
“I think that might be a little early,” Hay said. “Obviously we're shooting for the 22nd or the 23rd.
“I think we'll try to give him a little more each day until he's ready to participate in a full practice.”
There is no timetable for Howden. Hay says the Moose Jaw Warrior forward underwent baseline testing “and did really well on it.” Howden was checked backwards into the boards by Canadian teammate Brett Connelly during an intra-squad game at selection camp.
While most players on Canada's team were heralded as can't-miss prospects from an early age, Pearson has flown under the radar until now.
Pearson played Junior B hockey for the Waterloo Siskins at age 16 and 17. He credits the team manager Peter Brill, also a scout for the Barrie Colts, for getting him noticed by the OHL club.
Pearson had 15 goals and 27 assists in 66 games as an 18-year-old OHL rookie last season.
He was inspired to train hard this summer after watching Colts teammate Mark Scheifele get drafted seventh overall by the Winnipeg Jets.
Scheifele was also named to the Canadian team Wednesday. He and Pearson are linemates in Barrie and were paired up in Thursday's practice with Devante Smith-Pelly on the right wing.
While Scheifele was away playing seven NHL games with the Jets, Pearson shone for the Colts. He had 10 goals and 19 assists in 11 games before the big centre returned to Barrie.
Pearson continued to hold the attention of Hockey Canada head scout Kevin Prendergast with a two-point-per-game clip for the Colts.
“He put a lot hard work into this year and really did do a lot of things this summer to help work on his game and help him this year,” Scheifele said. “Maybe last year he just didn't get the opportunity like this year. He's been given the opportunity and running with it.”
Pearson was invited to play in the OHL's two games against Russia in November and scored a goal in each game.
That was the first time Hay clapped eyes on the six-foot, 198-pound winger.
“I thought he was really strong on the puck and strong down low,” Hay said. “He's got the capability to take the puck to the net and draws a lot of attention when he has the puck.”
“He's got a quick release and he's a big body guy. We've tried to look at teams that we're going to be playing against and we need that type of player.”
The OHL's leading scorer with 26 goals and 40 assists in 30 games is flying under the radar no longer.
He was among the 40 players named Thursday to the 2012 Home Hardware Top Prospects Game in Kelowna, B.C., on Feb. 1. The game showcases draft-eligible players for NHL scouts.
If recognition is coming later for him than it did for the rest of his Canadian teammates, Pearson doesn't seem to mind.
“I kind of take it in stride,” he said. “I didn't want my hockey career to end, so I just kept on trying to improve each year and it's worked out for me.”
Also Thursday, RBC announced it is donating two plane tickets to each player on the Canadian team to fly people who helped them in their career to the world junior championship. Pearson said he will give his tickets to parents Tim and Kim.
What's changed selection camp is Hockey Canada has a better scouting book on each player when they arrive at camp.
The annual series between Canadian Hockey League teams and Russian squads has become more competitive, which provides head scout Kevin Prendergast a more accurate read on a prospect pool of about 70 players.
Canada's under-18 men's program expanded when it began entering the world championship a decade ago. When choosing players for the under-20 team, Hockey Canada can look at their history in that competition.
Information from those events, combined with a player's performance with their club teams and at the summer junior camp gives Prendergast and Hay a fairly complete picture of what they're getting at selection camp.
So why bother with a selection camp at all, as short as it is? And why bring 42 players – when the average has been around 36 – to camp this year?
“The answer is we feel all players here are deserving of an invite to be evaluated at this level,” said Brad Pascall, Hockey Canada's vice-president of hockey operations. “We're not bringing players for numbers.
“If the player is deserving of being here and has a chance to make the team in some sort of role, then we're going to bring him to camp.”
While a player's history is taken into account in choosing Canada's team, Prendergast says selection camp is still the deciding factor.
“There's a lot of questions marks coming in here and a lot of ties,” Prendergast said. “This guy is as good as this guy. Who separates themselves in these games?”
A player can drop or rise on Hay's depth chart based on his performance in just one game at selection camp. In some ways, a quick, intense selection process simulates the tournament itself, the coach points out.
“It's a short tournament,” Hay said. “We don't have a lot of time to spend going over things. They have to pick up things quick and do the right things.”
Hay, Prendergast and assistant coaches Scott Walker, George Burnett and Ryan Huska were preparing for the difficult task of releasing players.
Hay is no stranger to the process as this is his second time as head coach of Canada's junior team. He cut Brett Lindros from the 1995 squad that won gold in Red Deer, Alta., and was reminded of that Monday.
“I think it was the right call and we went on to win the gold medal,” Hay said. “He was a good player, but he just wasn't suited for that team.”
The players were also preparing for a sleepless night, although Bunz for reasons other than nervousness. He says roommate Scott Wedgewood of the Plymouth Whalers snores.
“He's kept me up a couple of nights now,” Bunz said. “It sounds like he's eating a pillow.”
Rattie doesn't have a roommate and isn't keen on hearing the phone ring early in the morning.
“I've got my own room so I know if that phone rings tomorrow, it's not for anybody else,” he said. “Not going to sleep good at all.”