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Canada set to begin quest for 20th gold medal at world juniors

Star-studded roster set to open play in the Maritimes on Boxing Day
Canada’s Mason McTavish (23) celebrates the win over Finland during IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship gold medal game action in Edmonton, Saturday, Aug. 20, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson

Connor Bedard sees the reminder every time he’s back home.

His gold medal from the last world junior hockey championship — a tournament that was moved to the summer and almost didn’t happen because of COVID-19 — hangs in the 17-year-old phenom’s bedroom.

And the presumptive No. 1 pick at the 2023 NHL draft is eager for more.

“Feels like when you win it, it lasts 10 minutes,” Bedard said. “You want that again right away.”

Another opportunity is right around the corner.

Bedard headlines a star-studded Canadian roster that will be looking to secure the country’s 20 podium-topping performance at the event set to open Boxing Day in Halifax and Moncton, N.B.

Apart from the North Vancouver, B.C., product, already being compared to the likes of Connor McDavid and other franchise-altering talents, Canada boasts a trio of NHL players loaned to the national team in Shane Wright, Dylan Guenther and Brandt Clarke.

“World juniors are something that you grew up watching as a kid and dream playing in,” said Wright, a centre selected No. 4 overall by the Seattle Kraken at the 2021 draft. “A huge honour.”

“We don’t want to get too ahead of ourselves,” added Guenther, a forward with the Arizona Coyotes. “One last shot at winning a world junior championship is special.”

Bedard said Canada’s roster will feature “a bit of everything.”

“Whenever you’re assembling a team across Canada, it’s going to be pretty good,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of size, we’ve got speed, skill. It’s huge getting those (NHL) guys back.

“Those are all impact players in the best league in the world.”

Adam Fantilli — also in the conversation at the top of the upcoming NHL draft — has been impressed with the roster top-to-bottom.

“The best players in the country in one spot,” he said. “Great to see what everybody can do.”

Canada opens the tournament Monday against Czechia, the country commonly known as the Czech Republic, as part of a group playing out of Halifax’s Scotiabank Centre that includes Sweden, Germany and Austria.

The other side of the bracket is set for Moncton’s Avenir Centre and will feature the United States, Finland, Switzerland, Slovakia and Latvia.

Like at the reimagined August event in Edmonton, Russia is banned due to the country’s invasion of Ukraine. The 2023 tournament was originally slated for the Russian cities of Novosibirsk and Omsk before being moved to North America.

Canada, which sits as the favourite, also enters with the pressure of a home-soil crowd and sky-high expectations.

“A privilege,” said head coach Dennis Williams. “You want to be put in these positions. We have to make sure we have our players able to be play uncomfortable — being comfortable at being uncomfortable in those situations.”

Canadian winger Brennan Othmann said the group will be able to attack in a number of different ways.

“Our back end is mean and solid and tough, and our forwards are skilled and big and strong,” he said. “You’re going to get an unbelievable Canada team coming at you.”

“I see a lot of talent,” added Clarke, a Los Angeles Kings defenceman set for his first world juniors. “And there’s guys that can play lower in the lineup, can grind it out, can win puck battles that are really tough to play against.”

Hockey Canada director of player personnel Alan Millar said there’s no doubt skill was a focus in roster construction.

“But at the same time, we want to have heaviness throughout our lineup,” he said. “We want to play fast, we want to play hard, and we want to compete and put teams on their heels.”

The tournament also comes at a time where the sport’s national organization is undergoing significant change following a disastrous 2022 of ugly headlines related to its handling of sexual assault allegations and payouts to victims.

Hockey Canada has a new board of directors and should have a freshly minted CEO in the new year.

The players and coaching staff at the world juniors have no connection to the scandals, but they’re still going to be wearing the logo — and know there will be a lot of scrutiny.

“We want to make sure we keep that focus on how we do things both on and off the ice,” Willliams said. “We want to minimize any distractions — whether it’s through the pressure or anything on the outside.

“Our guys are coming in excited, our guys are coming in determined.”

And gold — just like every other international tournament Canada enters — is on their mind.

“All the guys that are coming back really want that,” Bedard said of the country’s eight returning players from the summer.

“And for the guys that are new, it’s something that we want to give them.”

—Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press

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