The key to winning for Canada at the world under-18 hockey championship is quick team-building, and that's why coach Mike Johnston took his players to the Minnesota Twins baseball season-opener this week.
“The Canadian team improves as it goes along,” he said. “All the other countries have played together all year at tournaments, but we have to get together right away.”
The Canadians go in as defending champions when the annual IIHF under-18 tournament begins Thursday in Fargo, N.D. and Moorhead, Minn. They were in Minneapolis this week to play an exhibition game and do a little bonding, including a trip to the ballpark.
The team is made up mostly of players whose junior clubs either didn't make the playoffs or were knocked out in the first round. There are 12 from the Ontario Hockey League, eight from the Western Hockey League, one from the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and one, defenceman Dylan Olsen, from the Alberta Junior Hockey League.
“Off-ice, you want them to get to know each other,” Johnston added. “On-ice, we try to have structure in practices, to have a very specific game plan, one forecheck for example, that they can learn well.”
In round-robin play, Canada opens against Germany on Thursday, then faces Switzerland on Saturday, the Czech Republic on April 13 and Sweden the following day. Single-game knockout play begins April 17.
TSN will begin its coverage April 14 with the Canada-Sweden preliminary game and will continue to carry Canada's games throughout the remainder of the tournament.
It is a situation similar to the men's IIHF world championships, where players are assembled mainly from NHL non-playoff squads, but a difference is that none of these players turn down Hockey Canada's call so they can rest up for the summer.
“I can't wait for it to begin,” said John McFarland, a forward picked first overall by the Sudbury Wolves in last year's OHL draft. “It's sad to leave your (club) team, but it's a great feeling to come here.”
Johnston said his team doesn't have a clear superstar, like a Sidney Crosby, but offers “depth and balance.”
And they are not all strangers.
Nine players were on Canada's team at the other, non-official under-18 championship – the Ivan Hlinka tournament held each August in the Czech Republic, where Canada is also defending champion.
Players from that squad who are back are goaltender Bryce O'Hagen of the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, defencemen Brayden McNabb of the Kootenay Ice, Simon Despres of the Saint John Sea Dogs, Stefan Elliot of the Saskatoon Blades and Taylor Doherty of the Kingston Frontenacs and forwards Ryan O'Reilly of the Erie Otters, Zach Kassian of the Peterborough Petes, Garrett Mitchell of the Regina Pats and Cody Eakin of the Swift Current Broncos.
Others have played together at under-16 and under-17 events, including McFarland, who led this year's U17 tournament in Port Alberni, B.C., for Team Ontario with eight goals and 12 points.
Despres, a highly rated prospect, is the lone Quebec player on the team, but fits right in.
“I know half the guys and I'm fluent in English, so I don't feel excluded,” said Despres, a native of Laval, Que. “I played in the under-18 in August.
“I'm a bit disappointed my team didn't get through the first round, but this is a great opportunity to represent my country.”
And doing well at this tournament may also count in a player's favour when a team is chosen for next year's world junior championship.
“That's one of the strengths,” said Despres.”You want to show what you can do here – that you can play when it counts and lift your level of play higher.”
An advantage will be playing on the NHL-size ice surface, but Johnston said that also makes the host Americans that much more dangerous.
Their squad comes from USA Hockey's development team, which trains together all year.
“The Swedes are supposed to have one of the most talented teams, like they did at the world juniors,” said Johnston. “Russia are supposed to have a lot of talented players, but they're always a bit of an unknown at these tournaments.”
Canada beat Finland 6-5 in an exhibition game this week, with Michael Zador of the Oshawa Generals in goal, and will get a chance to scout other teams' pre-tournament games.
But their main concern is getting their own game together on short notice.
“We're here to win and nothing else,” added Despres. “Only the gold, not second.”
Others on the team are defencemen Erik Gudbranson of Kingston and Calvin de Haan of Oshawa; and forwards Michael Fine of Sault Ste. Marie, Brett Connolly of the Price George Cougars, Byron Froese of the Everett Silvertips, Landon Ferraro of the Red Deer Rebels, Joey Hishon of the Owen Sound Attack, Curtis Hamilton of Saskatoon, Kyle Clifford of the Barrie Colts and Ethan Werek of Kingston.
Ferraro is the son of former NHL forward and current TV broadcaster Ray Ferraro.