Canada begins world junior preparations at annual summer showcase

Team Canada's Alexis Lafreniere. (Chad Hipolito/CP)

Shawn Bullock walks into Hockey Canada’s office every day with a lot on his plate.

Looking at the game through different lenses in an attempt to stay ahead of the curve is one of those many tasks.

"We’re trying to find ways to continue to be world-leading," said Bullock, the director of Hockey Canada’s men’s teams. "We’re still the No. 1-ranked federation in the world, but the gap is closing, so what can we do to separate ourselves?

"That’s something we’re challenged with."

Canada has won the world junior hockey championship a record 17 times, including twice in the last five tournaments following a five-year drought, but the days of domination appear to be over.

The United States has a full-time program that brings all its best players together, while European powers like Finland and Sweden have the advantage of international breaks to get more hands-on instruction with athletes.

The same can’t be said for Canada.

While there are plenty of benefits to the Canadian Hockey League, the national body doesn’t get nearly as much time with its elite talent.

And that’s why the World Junior Summer Showcase — an annual event that begins this weekend and runs through Aug. 3 just outside Detroit — is so crucial.

"The amount of touches those other programs get compared to what we do is insurmountable," Bullock said. "We have to cherish the time with our athletes."

Canada is bringing 33 skaters and five goalies to Plymouth, Mich., for a series of practices and exhibition games against the Americans, Finns and Swedes.

Taking place at the U.S. National Team Development Program’s facilities, it’s an opportunity for Canada’s management group to get an up-close look at many of the hopefuls for the upcoming world juniors, which start Dec. 26 in the Czech Republic.

"This is critical for us to learn about the athletes and for the coaching staff to set some expectations," Bullock said. "When we’ve been successful, we’ve done a great job of setting the tone. It’s important to get off on the right foot."

Ryan Suzuki (16) and Kirby Dach (17). (Codie McLachlan/CP)

Canada tipped London Knights head coach Dale Hunter as its bench boss for the 2020 tournament, while his brother Mark, the Ontario Hockey League’s team general manager and a former assistant GM with the Toronto Maple Leafs, is part of the brain trust.

A veteran of nearly 1,600 combined NHL regular-season and playoff games as a hard-nosed forward, Dale Hunter is getting his first crack at the world junior team despite being one of the most successful coaches in the CHL since buying the Knights with his brother in 2000.

Bringing in the Hunters is exactly what Bullock was referencing when he talked about Canada remaining "world-leading."

"When we get new coaching staffs like Dale’s group here together it’s about, ‘How can we separate ourselves from the competition?"’ he said. "The best part about our nation is we still have the most depth in the world."

What won’t be happening is Canada implementing a centralized program that practises and plays together like the Americans, who had a USNTDP-record eight players taken in the first round of the 2019 draft, including top pick Jack Hughes.

"It’s not in our plans," Bullock said. "We have an unbelievable partnership with the CHL, who really develop the majority of our elite hockey players. I always get a kick out of it — people were so in awe over the U.S. national team’s draft. Well, we still had 13 players drafted in the first round. That was more than what they had. They had the best players in the U.S. on that team. Good for them.

"But we still had more Canadians drafted in the first round."

Looking forward, Canada could potentially have six players back from the group that was bounced in the quarterfinals on home soil at last winter’s world juniors in Vancouver and Victoria.

But Alexis Lafreniere, a 17-year-old winger expected to be among the top picks at the 2020 draft, and centre Joe Veleno are the only two heading to the summer showcase, with defencemen Noah Dobson, Ty Smith and Jared McIsaac, and forward Barrett Hayton unable to participate.

"It’s exciting to know we have leadership there and the potential to have a real core that’s been through this event," Bullock said. "It’s like nothing else in junior hockey."

Canada’s most recent NHL draft class was led by Kirby Dach (No. 3 to Chicago), Bowen Byram (No. 4 to Colorado), Dylan Cozens (No. 7 to Buffalo), Alex Newhook (No. 16 to Colorado), Peyton Krebs (No. 17 to Vegas) and Thomas Harley (No. 18 to Dallas), who should all be in the mix for roster spots. Cozens and Krebs, however, will miss out on the event in Plymouth due to injury.

A lot can change between now and December when a trimmed-down crop of players will be invited to Canada’s selection camp. There’s a chance some of the teenagers management is counting on could be in the NHL or unavailable, while others not yet on the radar might break out this fall and force their way into the conversation.

But there’s no doubting the importance of the upcoming showcase as Canada gets the ball gets rolling toward the 2020 tournament.

"It’s nice to see where our players fall into the mix against high-performance competition, and for our coaches to really get a feel for the uniqueness of the three federations and how they play," Bullock said. "In combination, it’s a really exciting event for us."

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