As some of the world’s best 16-year-old hockey players compete in the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge this week in Cape Breton, N.S., Nathan Noel and Luc Deschênes may be experiencing dueling cases of déjà vu. Both made last year’s Atlantic squad as under-agers.
The experience of matching up against older players wasn’t new to either.
“It’s always an adjustment playing with older, stronger, faster guys, but eventually the game slows down for you,” says Noel, a native of St. John’s, N.L, who suited up last season for Shattuck-St. Mary’s in Faribault, Minn., as the only under-ager on the school’s prep team.
And the Fredericton-born Deschênes played for New Brunswick at the 2011 Canada Winter Games – a tournament usually reserved for 15-year-olds – as a 14-year-old.
While last year’s result was disappointing (Atlantic went 1-4 and finished eighth), both players view the experience as a positive one.
The 2013 tournament marked the first major international competition for either player. Deschênes, a defenceman with the Charlottetown Islanders of the QMJHL, had played a tournament in Austria in 2012, but admits that the skill level wasn’t quite on par with what he saw at the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge in Victoriaville and Drummondville, Que.
And it was that ability that their European counterparts brought to the ice that surprised the players the most.
“A lot of the European teams play a lot differently than the Canadian teams,” says Noel, a forward with the Saint John Sea Dogs of the QMJHL. “They play a more skilled game.” And they’re quick, too. “That was the biggest surprise for me,” says Deschênes. “The game was a lot faster. Last year at this time I was playing midget hockey, so the speed was a big jump coming here.”
Making their repeat appearance at this showcase competition twice as nice is playing for the home team this time around.
“Last year I saw the Quebec fans going pretty crazy,” remembers Deschênes. “There’s more excitement than pressure being the home team. The fans can only help us.”
This tournament marks only the second time Deschênes and Noel have played together – although they’ve been playing against each other for years. That familiarity has already bred contentment, with Deschênes assisting on both of Noel’s goals in Atlantic’s pre-tournament 5-2 exhibition win over the Czech Republic.
“Luc’s a physical guy, so that opens up a lot of room for skilled guy like me,” says Noel. “I think having played here together last year, we’re a little more comfortable and calm when we’re on the ice,” adds Deschênes.
As the veterans of the team, Deschênes and Noel have been asked to take on leadership roles this time around. “It’s obviously an honour to be captain on any team, but I think having the Maple Leaf on your chest makes [it even more so],” says Deschênes.
As someone who didn’t see a lot of ice time in 2013, Noel – an alternate captain for this year’s squad – will make sure to keep an eye on those who don’t jump over the boards as much as they’re used to. “It was a mental struggle not playing much last year,” he says, “so you just have to keep pushing through for those guys [who are there now].”
As for expectations this year, the 5-2 pre-tournament win over the Czech Republic gave the team a confidence boost. “I think everyone’s goal in that room is to come out with a medal,” says Deschênes.
If this year’s team reaches its goal, it would mark only the second medal for Atlantic at the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge. The team won a bronze medal in 2005 in Lethbridge, Alta.