By Patrick King
Dustin Tokarski and Chet Pickard are putting a rivalry on hold as the duo joined forces earlier this week.
Tokarski and Pickard were the two goaltenders chosen to represent Team Canada at the world junior hockey championships later this month in Ottawa after battling it out in the selection camp over the weekend.
Tokarski, the starting goaltender of the Spokane Chiefs, and Pickard, the Tri-City Americans’ starter, will be teaming up after engaging in some heated goaltending duels in the Western Hockey League.
“This is the first year we’ve gotten to know each other personally … I’m really excited that we get to be partners on this team,” Pickard said. “It’s pretty funny that both Team Canada goalies come from two hours apart in Washington state.”
The Chiefs and Americans saw their bitter rivalry hit the forefront last year. Pickard’s Americans got the upper hand in the regular season, winning the last game of the regular season over Tokarski’s Chiefs to take the U.S. Division, Western Conference and league regular-season championship.
Tokarski got his revenge in the playoffs, however, as his Chiefs narrowly edged the Americans in an epic seven-game thriller in the Western Conference finals. The Chiefs went on to win the Ed Chynoweth Cup as league champions and Memorial Cup as Canadian Hockey League champions while Tokarski was named the Memorial Cup’s Most Valuable Player.
Through their countless battles, the two couldn’t help but acquire a respect for each other’s accomplishments and abilities. But make no mistake, when the tournament opens on Boxing Day against the Czech Republic, both goaltenders wish dearly to be the go-to goaltender.
“No doubt we both want the job and be the guys to lead the team in net,” Tokarski said. “I’m willing to be very supportive and it comes down to you’re playing as a team and you want, as a team, to win that gold.
“I think we’re both going to be happy to cheer each other on and help each other out.”
“Being an athlete and a competitor, everybody wants to be in that spotlight and be playing at all times,” Pickard added. “(But) we’re here for a reason and that’s to become a team and we’re here to be close and support each other and do whatever it takes to win.”
The duo began rooming together Monday night after the roster was announced. They were roommates during the ADT Canada-Russia Challenge in November when they represented the WHL against a travelling Russian team.
Tokarski and Pickard were only the tip of the iceberg where WHL players are concerned. The Canadian roster has a heavy feel from Western Canada, as 12 of the 22 players named to the team are from the WHL. The Ontario Hockey League follows with six players while the Québec Major Junior Hockey League is represented by three.
One of those players from the QMJHL is none other than Montreal Juniors forward Angelo Esposito. This was Esposito’s final chance to make the junior roster after being cut in each of the three previous years.
As Pascal Vincent, his coach in Montreal, says, Esposito’s physical and mental makeup could be one of the reasons he was named to the team.
“Maybe for his skills and his speed he was ready to be invited to (Hockey Canada’s selection) camp at 16 and 17 years old but probably not physically,” said Vincent, whose team acquired Esposito during the off-season from the Québec Remparts. “He’s gotten much stronger in the past year or so and so many things happened in his life, he’s finally taking control of everything.”
Vincent has worked with Esposito to bring the game back to a level he may not have enjoyed since his rookie season. Ever since Esposito lit the league on fire as a 16-year-old with the Memorial Cup winning Remparts, everything he has done has been heavily scrutinized.
“What I saw early in the season is a guy that carries so much pressure on his shoulders,” Vincent said. “Everything that he does, everything that he says, every shot that he takes, it was looked at and analyzed and we wanted to help him go through this and to live with it and enjoy it a little bit more.
“We’re trying to focus on doing things that are very basic with him and the first one is to have fun. He’s coming to the rink and enjoying playing the game and I think it makes a difference. The bottom line is if you just think about the pressure and you don’t play the game then you won’t be successful.”
The news from camp was bittersweet for Vincent’s Juniors. While Esposito made the team, his goaltender, Jake Allen, did not. As the only 18-year-old goaltender at the selection camp, however, Allen seemingly has the inside track on the starting job next year.
“He is disappointed and if he wasn’t that would be a disappointment for me,” Vincent said of his goaltender. “Not making the team isn’t the end of the world. It’s still a privilege to be invited to that camp because that means he’s one of the top goaltenders in Canada.”
All quiet on Tavares front?
While John Tavares is in Ottawa preparing himself for his second world junior tournament, the rumours of his future as an Oshawa General continue to swirl.
Generals head coach and general manager Chris DePiero defused the notion his team has so much as put Tavares on the trading block.
“First of all, we have not let it be known he’s available for trade,” DePiero said Tuesday. “There’s been no public declaration to anybody that he’s available for trade.”
But that hasn’t stopped teams from calling.
“Certainly there have been people calling, kicking tires and stuff,” he said. “There hasn’t been any serious discussion with any particular team.”
The OHL’s trade deadline is Jan. 9 and Tavares can’t be traded from now until then, as the OHL placed a rule preventing teams from trading players while they’re at the world juniors.
“We’re doing an internal audit here and we’ll determine what our next step is as an organization,” DePiero said.
Tavares is one of four returning players on Team Canada and will take on a leadership role as one of the alternate captains of the team.
“I think it shows his leadership skills have emerged this year, not only with us but obviously on the national scale and international scale with team Canada,” DePiero added. “We’re very proud of that.”
Storied franchise staying put
The oldest major junior franchise, the Regina Pats of the WHL, isn’t going anywhere.
Pats owner Russ Parker issued a release Tuesday stating many of the issues with the Brandt Centre, the home rink of the team, have been resolved. There was speculation earlier this season the team may have been moving to Victoria or Penticton, B.C. With this agreement, the team won’t be moving from their home in the “Queen City.”
The arena will undergo a facelift in some areas, namely by expanding seating and renovating the dressing rooms. The Brandt Centre will be one of two rinks hosting next year’s world junior championships, along with the Credit Union Centre in Saskatoon.
The organization began in 1917 and has won two WHL championships as well as the Memorial Cup in 1974. The Pats and the Brandt Centre hosted the 2001 Memorial Cup. Regina lost in overtime of the semifinal to the QMJHL champion Val-d’Or Foreurs.
Culligan to stand alone in Screaming Eagles record book
Chris Culligan is anticipating Dean Ouellet’s reaction.
Culligan, a fifth-year veteran and captain of the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles, is three points shy of tying Ouellet’s mark of 258 career points with the franchise. Ouellet broke the record last season, playing all four years with Cape Breton, along with Culligan. Kevin Asselin, who was at the game when Ouellet broke his record last season, had an interesting take on the accomplishment.
“(Asselin) told him, ‘When you break a record like that, it means you’re around for too long,’” Culligan said. “That’s something that has stayed in my mind too so I’m sure he’ll probably just repeat that to me.”
Although Culligan saw Ouellet in Moncton on Sunday, neither spoke of the record. Culligan, once considered as one of the most underrated players in the league, says he hasn’t paid much attention to the record yet knew the exact number of games he had gone without recording a point since coming within three of tying it.
“I know I’m playing well and I feel like I’m skating great and creating opportunities but the puck’s not going in for me,” said Culligan, who hasn’t recorded a point in his last five games. “Sometimes my linemates do but I’m not worried about it now. It’s going got come sometime.”
In spite of his steady, reliable two-way play, Culligan seemingly remains an afterthought where National Hockey League teams are concerned. He went undrafted but was invited to his first camp last summer by the Minnesota Wild. As Mario Durocher, his head coach and general manager said, he’s hoping this sort of record comes with some recognition from NHL teams.
“He’s a very smart hockey player and he just gets better every year,” Durocher said. “If one team can just give him a chance for a pro camp, nobody will be disappointed.”