Upward of three million people will be watching Canada’s world junior semi-final against Russia, but arguably, no one will have a greater rooting interest than Jacques Bealieu, coach of the OHL’s Sarnia Sting. Beaulieu’s son, Nathan, plays for Canada, last year’s finalists, while his star pupil, Nail Yakupov, just happens to be with Russia, the defending champions.
But let there be no mistake here about who Beaulieu wants to win. It’s Canada – and he even has something riding on the outcome. Just before Yakupov left for the world junior tournament, the Russian prodigy and Beaulieu made a friendly wager just in case Canada and Russian happened to cross paths during the event.
Should Canada emerge victorious, Yakupov will be obliged to wear a red-and-white Canadian sweater for a full week of practice back in Sarnia. Should it go the other way, then it’ll be Beaulieu wearing a Russian jersey that he says Yakupov will be obliged to supply – if it comes to that.
Beaulieu says he made the proposal to Yakupov, the highly regarded prospect who is favoured to go first overall in the NHL’s next entry draft, before a practice a few weeks back.
“We were skating alongside each other and I said to him, ‘Go Canada Go.’ And then I told him to keep his head up against Canada,” said Beaulieu, with a laugh. “That’s how it started.”
Russia qualified for the semi-finals with a 2-1 overtime victory over the Czech Republic on Monday night, setting the stage for the much-anticipated rematch of last year’s tournament final, won by the Russians in dramatic come-from-behind fashion.
Yakupov is much watched by NHL scouts, but his performance here is a reminder that no matter what a player’s pedigree or upside may be, the world under-20 championship is a tournament for 19-year-olds. Evgeny Kuznetsov, the team captain and the player who managed a nine-point night against Latvia in the preliminary round, is far and away Russia’s best player.
NHL scouts are in the business of extrapolating what someone’s raw talent is two years down the road, which is why Yakupov is so fascinating. But in terms of devising a game plan to win Tuesday’s game and move on to play for the gold medal, Canada needs to find a way of neutralizing Kuznetsov, the Quebec Remparts’ Mikhail Grigorenko, and all the rest. Kuznetsov already plays in the KHL and as a Washington Capitals’ draft choice, could be in the NHL, playing alongside Alex Ovechkin as early as next year.
But Yakupov? Even as Canada seeks revenge for last year’s jarring loss, Yakupov’s NHL rights are up for grabs, which is why there is so much fascination over this, his first tentative steps on the big stage.
Beaulieu is a fan – except maybe Tuesday night – and notes that during his days on Dale Hunter’s staff in London, he’s coached players from Rick Nash to Corey Perry. Yakupov, he believes, is special in the same way Nash and Perry are special.
“He’s dynamic on the ice. His skating is incredible. His edges are really good. His hockey sense is good. The only thing that’s going to stop Nail from playing in the National Hockey League next year is if he doesn’t pay attention to details on defence,” Beaulieu said.
“But he’s very enthusiastic; he’s got a good sense of humour; and his teammates love him.”
For his part, Yakupov says he’s happy to be part of the Russian squad, playing with his “buddies” again. As for the draft, that is something he doesn’t like to talk about it. Sensibly, he makes the point that the draft is in June, the world juniors are now, so the draft can wait. And in fact, after Russia’s opener, in which he described his own play as “terrible,” he noted that if the scouts had based their assessment on that game, “I would be in the sixth round.”
The test Tuesday night, from a Canadian perspective, will be to neutralize the scoring talents of all the Russian players. Thus far in the tournament, Canada’s goaltending has been solid; the scoring balanced; and the discipline more or less intact. Jonathan Huberdeau is showing no ill effects from the ankle injury that cost him a month of the QJMHL season and even the loss of Devante Smith-Pelly early on hasn’t set them back as much as one might have thought, with others – notably Boone Jenner – stepping up to provide a physical presence. As long as the flu bug that waylaid coaches Don Hay and Scott Walker on Monday stays out of the dressing room, they are as ready as they can be for the semis.
Canada held its final practice Monday morning, without knowing who exactly would be on its dance card. The plan was for the ailing coaching staff to attend the Russia-Czech game, but leave halfway through, so they could be at the hotel to meet with the Canadian players once it was over. The players, meanwhile, were to watch the game on television, and once an opponent had been determined, they would get a quick primer on them from the coaching staff.
Beaulieu will be watching too, from Sarnia, to see if his son Nathan gets a chance to stop Yakupov in a match-up that many thought would be the tournament final. It didn’t happen, so this is the next best thing, and Canada’s players are ready.
“All of our focus is going to be put towards one game,” assessed forward Brendan Gallagher. “We’re not going to worry about anything except that. All we have to do is go out and win one hockey game and then we’ll worry about the next one after that.”