Canada begins quest to ‘be special’ at 2017 world juniors

Canada's Dylan Strome, left to right, Mathew Barzal and Julien Gauthier wait for their turn as the world junior selection camp opens, in Boisbriand, Que., on Sunday, December 11, 2016. (Ryan Remiorz/CP)

LAVAL, Que. — Daniel Briere described it as a punch in the guts.

The Gatineau, Que., native, who later became a veteran of 973 NHL games, was the last player cut from the 1996 Canadian junior team that went to Boston and posted a 6-0-0 record en route to capturing a gold medal.

"I had been watching the world juniors since I was a little boy, it’s all I wanted to do," said Briere in a telephone interview with Sportsnet Wednesday. "I got to the last day—believe me I didn’t sleep very well—and that morning the phone rang at five.

"I picked up and I was scared to death, and I thought, ‘I’m getting the phone call to come up and meet the coach to get cut.’

"But they asked for my roommate. I went back to bed thinking I got lucky it wasn’t for me. About 15-20 minutes later the phone rang again, and I looked around the room and realized I was the only one in there."

The final cuts of the 2017 Canadian roster were spared from what would’ve been a mostly sleepless night when they were notified of their failure to make the team just two hours after their final audition—an 8-0 trouncing of the Czech Republic Wednesday at the Centre D’Excellence Sports Rousseau in Boisbriand, Que.

One by one, goaltender Michael McNiven, forwards Sam Steel and Zach Senyshyn and defenceman Guillaume Brisebois met the press to express their disappointment.

Then came Samuel Girard, the 18-year-old defenceman who paced all CHLers with 74 points last season and had collected 35 in just 23 games this season. He had that familiar air of resignation about him.

"I thought I had a good camp," Girard said in his native French. "They told me it’s a question of fit."

If there’s one player who made this year’s team who could empathize with what Girard was feeling, it’s defenceman Noah Juulsen.

Juulsen was so distraught when he was named the last cut of the 2016 team that he declined interviews. The Montreal Canadiens prospect told Sportsnet at the team’s September rookie camp that the experience in Finland was among the most brutal ones he’d ever been subjected to.

A year from now, if he’s not playing for the Nashville Predators, Girard will have a chance to do what Juulsen will be able to do now. And if both players are lucky, they’ll get to do it the way Briere did in 1997.

"I feel very fortunate to be able to say I played in the ‘97 tournament in Switzerland, and that we won gold," said Briere. "It’s probably a top-five moment of my career."

For some members of this 2017 team, playing on home soil (in Toronto and Montreal) could be the pinnacle. The truth is, a great showing at the world juniors is no guarantee of a prominent NHL career to follow.

For five of the players on this team—forwards Dylan Strome, Mathew Barzal, Julien Gauthier, Mitchell Stephens and defenceman Thomas Chabot—this will be an opportunity to wash out the bitter taste of a sixth-place finish at last year’s tournament.

"It’s not easy to forget," said Gauthier, who opened the scoring in Wednesday’s game. "But we want to move forward, and I believe in our chance to win this year."

So does head coach Dominque Ducharme, who is trying to rally his players around the slogan "Be special".

"We want to be a complete team," said Ducharme. "I think what we saw in the last three days (two wins against the Canadian college circuit’s best players and one against the Czechs) is what we want to do. I think we’ve got speed, we’ve got skill, I think we’re reliable, we can defend, we’re good at putting pressure on the other team, and we want to put all of that together."

The versatility Ducharme describes will be key on a team that doesn’t feature the type of big-name talent we’ve seen on previous editions.

No NHL team will lend its tournament-eligible players to Canada this time around.

Arizona’s Jakob Chychrun and Lawson Crouse could’ve injected some experience, and Toronto’s Mitch Marner and New York Islander Anthony Beauvillier would’ve qualified as two of the most talented forwards on this roster.

And then there’s NHL leading scorer Connor McDavid, who was never a realistic option for this team—even if he qualifies to participate at only 19 years of age.

This year Canada will call on a player (forward Mathieu Joseph) who has never participated in any international event in its jersey, two players (forward Tyson Jost and defenceman Dante Fabbro) who graduated from the less vaunted BCHL last season, and three players (defenceman Kale Clague and forwards Taylor Raddysh and Blake Speers) who weren’t even a part of the team’s summer development camp.

It’s a different look, but the endgame is still the same.

"They’ll all have to buy in," says Blair MacKasey, who was a member of the coaching staff that cut Briere in ’96 and was Hockey Canada’s head scout from 2002 to 2005 and its director of player personnel until 2006. "The willingness to park egos at the door; that’s what distinguishes Hockey Canada."

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