No pressure but Canada is shooting for its fifth straight gold medal at the under-18 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament, which starts Monday.
“It’s not pressure, it’s an opportunity, that’s the way we’re going to present it to them,” says coach Todd Gill.
The former Maple Leafs defenceman guides this year’s entry at the tournament, which takes place in Piestany and Breclav, Czech Republic.
Centre Curtis Lazar agrees.
“We’ve got huge steps to follow but we just don’t let that get to us,” said the Edmonton Oil Kings forward. “If we go out there and play our game we’ll get the job done.”
Canada has dominated the summer tournament since its inception, winning it 16 times since 1991. It’s also known as the Junior World Cup and is unsanctioned by the International Ice Hockey Federation.
The sanctioned under-18 world championship takes place each year when most of the best Canadian and U.S. players are still involved in various playoffs.
It’s been old home week for Lazar, one of nine WHL members on the team, the largest single contingent. The Ontario Hockey League contributed seven players and six are drawn from the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
Scoring talent abounds.
Lazar has been practising on a line with Sam Reinhart of the WHL’s Kootenay Ice (brother Griffin Reinhart played in the tournament last year) and Max Domi of the OHL’s London Knights (the son of former Leafs’ enforcer Tie Domi).
“That’s the strength of our team,” Gill says of the crop of strong young forwards selected this year, which also includes Nathan MacKinnon of the QMJHL’s Halifax Mooseheads, coming off his 78-point full-season debut.
Gill has had a week to get them playing together and teach a system he hopes will give his team an edge over the others at the tournament.
“You’ve got 22 new kids learning a system but we’re very talented up front and hoping that system allows them to score a lot of goals,” says Gill.
As for the opposition, Lazar says the team really doesn’t know what to expect.
“We’ve just got to be prepared for everything... We’ll be ready for it,” he said.
Gill says his players have done their homework but working on preparing the Canadian team has been the real focus.
“The thing about the European teams is a lot of them all play the same systems and don’t change very much,” he said. “We’ve had our video and have been watching it.”
Gill coaches the OHL’s Kingston Frontenacs and was also an assistant coach at the last official under-18 world championship. He relishes the idea of building a team under pressure.
“That’s the thing I love about it and that’s why I applied for the job,” he said. “You need a challenge and obviously this is a very big one.
“I was at the world championships in April and it came together over there but unfortunately we just missed it and came away with bronze.”
Lazar is taking an even-keel approach to his first real foray into international hockey.
“Whatever happens, I’m going to enjoy the experience and the opportunity to play with 21 of Canada’s top hockey players,” he said.