Canada West representatives Anthony Paskaruk and Maddison Smiley are on the cusp of something special.
Last May, the 19-year-old Alberta natives helped the Brooks Bandits win the RBC Cup, Canada’s National Junior A Championship, in Summerside, P.E.I., capping a magical season that went down as one of the best in AJHL history.
Six months later, they’re on the international stage and uniting with an elite class of players at the 2013 World Junior A Challenge. If Canada West wins gold in Yarmouth, N.S., Paskaruk and Smiley will have accomplished what few others have, capturing both of Junior A’s most prestigious titles.
The Penticton Vees trio of Curtis Loik, Travis St. Denis and Troy Stecher (2011 World Junior A Challenge and 2012 RBC Cup) and Burnaby Express teammates Tyler McNeely and Kyle Turris (2006 RBC Cup and 2006 World Junior A Challenge) are the only others with the sweep on their résumé.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Smiley said. “To be one of those names on that list would be incredible and I don’t think words could describe it. Having the chance to do something like that, to become part of such an exclusive group, it’s extra motivation to go out and perform at our best.”
Best known for his booming shot from the point, Smiley, a 6-foot-0, 180-pound defenceman, recorded 22 goals and 50 points in 56 games last season.
Paskaruk, a speedy forward now in his fourth season with the Bandits, played 73 games, collecting 23 goals and 59 points, and was the top scorer at the RBC Cup.
“Growing up I always watched the World Juniors and have always wanted to play in one, and this is basically our last chance to do it,” said Paskaruk, who, like Smiley, will graduate to the NCAA ranks next season. “Now we’re getting the opportunity to participate in one of these events and it’s a dream come true.”
Both players attended Canada West’s selection camp last year, but did not make the cut.
As far as Paskaruk is concerned, however, they’re better suited for the battle this time around after experiencing the grind (and excitement) of a championship season.
“It was our goal the entire year, to play for the national title,” he said, bringing attention to the team’s 53-4-3 regular season record. “The atmosphere in Summerside was crazy and winning it all made it even more special. It's a similar situation now heading into this tournament. Every game means so much and when it comes down to the wire like that, you've got to perform at your best.
“It’s a privilege to be here. I’ve always dreamed of representing my country.”
“I can't thank our coaches enough,” Smiley added. “(Head coach and general manager) Ryan Papaioannou and (assistant coach) Brent Gunnlaugson have been incredibly supportive. They’ve given us the opportunity to work on everything in our game and have provided the individual attention you need to succeed at this level.
“That’s the biggest thing – we’re all individuals, but we come together in a team sport. I couldn’t imagine playing and developing my game anywhere else.
“That program has prepared us extremely well for this opportunity with Canada West.”
With Canada East, Russia, Switzerland, the United States and the Czech Republic standing in their way, the road to gold won’t be an easy one. That’s understood, but there isn’t any concern. The players are well prepared heading into the opening puck drop on Nov. 4.
“Regardless of the level, I’ve always been a fan of these international events,” Smiley said. “Hockey is a huge part of my life, so the more information I can take in, the better. Based on what I’ve seen and from what I’ve heard from guys that have played here in the past, the talent level is consistently good across the board.
“We can’t be surprised, and we certainly can’t take our foot off the pedal.
“I can’t wait to get going.”