At 10:30 a.m. Pacific time on December 5, the place to be in Vancouver was the media conference room at General Motors Place. Hockey observers were thrilled to learn the names of the 34 Canadian players who have been selected to the National Junior Team Selection Camp (December 11-16).
On hand for the announcement were Hockey Canada President Bob Nicholson, WHL Commissioner Ron Robinson, World Junior General Manager Stuart Ballantyne, and Ron Toigo, Chair of the 2006 IIHF World Junior Championship Organizing Committee and owner of the Vancouver Giants.
“When you look at our junior program, it is special,” said Nicholson, who has been involved since 1991. “In the past, we’ve won three gold medals and one silver medal with what experts in the hockey world would call a ‘younger, inexperienced team.’ It just shows you the great depth we have in hockey in this country.” He congratulated the commissioners of the three CHL leagues on their contributions to Canada’s international success at the junior level.
Although Canada’s 2006 team will likely be heavy on 18-year-old talent, five 19-year-old WHL stars took part in the Vancouver press conference: goaltenders Devan Dubnyk (Kamloops) and Justin Pogge (Calgary), defencemen Andy Rogers (Prince George) and Jeff Schultz (Calgary), and forward Blake Comeau (Kelowna). Despite being on-ice rivals, they all had one thing in common today: they were exhilarated about taking the next step toward representing their country on home ice, but also well aware that a lot of hard work lies ahead.
“I’m really happy,” said Pogge, the only goalie invited to the Selection Camp who did not also participate in August’s Development Camp. “It was one of my goals coming into the year, trying to make this team. Now I’m one step closer. Not getting an invite to the summer camp makes you want to work harder and get invited to the Christmas camp. That’s the one that really matters. There are four really good goalies, and it’s going to be tough to make the team. It’s all about preparation and focus.”
Dubnyk, one of 25 Selection Camp players who has previously represented Canada at the World U18 Championship, said he felt past international experience was beneficial: “It’s huge. This is a different game, and it’s a different set-up. Other countries play different styles than we do here in Canada, and it takes a bit of getting used to. Every year, goaltending is one of Canada’s strength, and there are probably eight or nine guys who could do the job for our country. It’s a big honour to be included in a group of four like this. I’ll do my best to be named to the final two.”
Will Canada use an all-WHL goaltending tandem for the second straight year? Who will emerge on defence as the dominant power play quarterback? Will youngsters like Angelo Esposito and Jonathan Toews get a shot at forward? There are tons of questions that remain to be answered, but it’s important for Canadian fans to remember one thing, according to Nicholson.
“This team of 22 guys will have its own identity,” said the Hockey Canada president, downplaying comparisons with the stacked Canadian team that went unbeaten in 2005.
“It’ll be a Brent Sutter team at the end of the day,” added Ron Robinson. “Brent, in the WHL, is accustomed to icing teams that play a gritty, in-your-face style. I think you can expect that from this year’s team. There’ll be some strong competition for Canada, but our coaching staff, including Clement Jodoin and Craig Hartsburg, is very experienced and will make sure the team is well-prepared and disciplined.”
Sutter has praised Blake Comeau’s approach as an example of what the team is looking for, and the Kelowna Rockets ace has taken that as a positive heading into camp: “It’s definitely a confidence booster, and for him to say something like that builds some confidence in me. But I know the job’s not done yet. There’s still a camp and a team to be made, so I’m not going to take my foot off the pedal. I’ll have to play physical and chip in offensively when I get the chance. It’s special to have the tournament in Canada. It only happens every few years.”
It’s a chance to play in front of family and friends, and for this select group of young men, it’s so close they can almost taste it.
“Today’s about the 34 players that have been named,” said Nicholson. “It’s a special moment for them. I know there are a lot of other individuals that will be disappointed because they weren’t named. That’s part of going through the system and competing for a spot on Team Canada.”
The selection camp will enable Canada's staff to prepare, evaluate and choose the final 22 players on Canada’s roster for the 2006 IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship in Vancouver, BC from to . That roster will be announced December 16.