Representing your country at the IIHF World Championship doesn’t come along every year, and some players are okay with that; playing at worlds means your
team either missed the NHL playoffs, or made an early exit.
But ask Matt Duchene, Taylor Hall or Ryan O’Reilly how they felt about their postseason accomplishments last year, and odds are they’d talk not about their
NHL disappointments, but about their spring in Prague.
The trio were members of the Canadian contingent that swept through the 2015 worlds in record-setting fashion; Canada became the first team to ever win 10
games at a single world championship, and its 66 goals were the most scored by any team since 1977, when NHLers began to participate.
One year later, and Duchene, Hall and O’Reilly are the only three players returning to Team Canada as it tries to go back-to-back at the worlds for the
first time since 2003 and 2004.
This time around, though, Canada has swapped names like Crosby, Spezza and Burns with youngsters like McDavid, Domi and Rielly, leaving the returnees with
leadership roles on and off the ice.
“When it comes to age, our team is much younger than it was last year,” says O’Reilly. “I feel like having gone through the tournament I have a little more
experience, and I have a responsibility to prepare guys and make sure everyone is ready to go night in, night out.”
“I’m not a real rah-rah guy, but certainly having been here before I can help out the new guys,” adds Hall. “We have a lot of new faces and a lot of young
guys on this team who maybe haven’t played in too many situations like this before. So if they can get comfortable, and get used to their surroundings, I
think that’s good.”
For Duchene, the role of returnee is nothing new; the 25-year-old Olympic gold medallist is playing at his fifth IIHF World Championship – he made his
debut at 19 at the 2010 tournament in Germany.
“I can help guys with what I’ve seen and what I think works on the big ice and in these tournaments,” says the Haliburton, Ont., native, who has more than
70 international games on his résumé.
“I know what to expect and hopefully I can be there for guys that have any questions or want to lean on a veteran. I’m just trying to be positive in the
room, work hard on the ice and lead by example.”
While playing in the world championship is a great consolation prize for not chasing the Stanley Cup in the NHL playoffs – especially when winning a medal
is involved – the experience goes beyond that.
Most of the players that comprise Canada’s roster are stars and important contributors on their own teams, but the worlds allow each of them to not only
get to know each other off the ice, but share knowledge on it.
“We had such an elite group last year and that’s why we could pick up a few things from each other,” Duchene says. “I felt like we did that throughout the
tournament and that helped us come together as a group and obviously we had a lot of fun.”
For Hall and O’Reilly, last year’s tournament was particularly special because it allowed them to play alongside Canadian hockey royalty – IIHF Triple Gold
Club member Sidney Crosby.
“As soon as they named Sid to the team, I think that forced everyone to raise their play,” says Hall. “It forced everyone to know that it was either gold
or bust for our team. That’s just what Sid brings to the table.”
After playing against him during the NHL season, O’Reilly was familiar with Crosby’s on-ice exploits, but it was during workouts and practice the Buffalo
Sabres forward learned a lot about himself and his game.
“Seeing him practice the way he did and the pace that he played at was incredible,” O’Reilly remembers. “He dominated no matter what he did, he played with
a good attitude and he was effective, so it was a real treat to see. You just learn to find that intensity that he brings.”
That intensity, that mindset and that come-together factor are all things that the trio has brought to this year’s edition of Team Canada as it goes for
gold in Russia.
If the Canadians are going to go back-to-back, their leaders know what it will take – gel quickly, be consistent, and take it game by game, and Canada just
might stay on top of the hockey world.