22 excited young men got their first Christmas gift early Monday morning when they were named to the final roster of Canada's National Junior Team. Ear to ear grins and an overwhelming feeling of pride, excitement and relief filled the Halifax Metro Centre as the players, coaches and staff took the ice for their team picture.
Nine players from the Ontario Hockey League, eight from the Western Hockey League, four from the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and one player from the United States College ranks will make up Canada's 2003 World Junior Team.
Assistant Coach Mike Kelly is looking forward to working with his team and getting them ready for their first game against Sweden on December 26. "We're going to have a quick team that moves the puck. We can pursue the puck quickly, we like that in a small rink, things will happen really fast."
Perhaps the brightest smile of the morning came from Marc-Andre Fleury. The goaltender from Sorel, Quebec, who plays for the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles, has been adopted by the fans in Halifax as they're "hometown boy" for the tournament. "Nova Scotia has nice people; they have always been nice to me. I play in Sydney a few hours away but I hear the fans in Halifax cheering for me." He goes on to say that "sometimes when I'm not so comfortable in the net and I make a save and the fans scream, it makes me feel better so I can keep playing well."
Head Coach Marc Habscheid also announced the captain and assistant captains today. Scottie Upshall of Fort McMurray Alberta will wear the ‘C' while Pierre-Marc Bouchard of Boucherville Quebec and Steve Eminger from Woodbridge Ontario will each wear an ‘A.' "I didn't expect to be named captain," explains Upshall, "it's an honor just to be wearing the flag, and an even bigger honor to be looked upon as a leader."
Eminger and Bouchard, each bring NHL experience to the team. "I have the chance to be with good players and veterans in the dressing room in Minnesota. I think that I will be able to bring that experience to the team." Eminger echoes Bouchard's feelings "coming down from the NHL I think I can be a good leader."
Today's announcement was especially sweet for Pierre-Alexandre Parenteau. He is now a member of his first National Team. He is excited to play for his country and play again with his cousin Pierre-Marc Bouchard. "I think this is the best day of my life, I'm pretty excited. I think I will have 6 people here to watch on December 27th."
Several of the players are looking forward to playing against Team Russia. After the Canadians lost to the Russians in last years tournament, Parenteau is one of the many players hoping it's pay back time. "All of the teams are very good, and I want to play every team, but Russia will be good, they beat Canada last year so we have to beat them this year."
The World Junior Hockey Championship will begin in Halifax and Sydney on December 26th. Until then there will be lots of hard work and a few exhibition games. Gold is what's on the mind of all of the players. All they want for Christmas is to be able to play their best and reclaim the title as the best junior aged players in the world. "All I want for Christmas is that gold, and maybe to have my mom see me score a goal" says Upshall.
Team Canada is off to Antigonish Nova Scotia to continue its preparation. The team will play two exhibition games in Sydney, one on December 20th against Slovakia and the second on the 23rd against Finland. If the size and intensity of their smiles are any indication of their determination, the players of Team Canada will make their country very proud.