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Jaden Schwartz shares a laugh with his teammates at the official announcement of C anada's national junior team in Calgary on Wednesday. (Chris Bolin for The Globe and Mail)
Jaden Schwartz shares a laugh with his teammates at the official announcement of C anada's national junior team in Calgary on Wednesday. (Chris Bolin for The Globe and Mail)

Journey

Junior Jaden Schwartz ready to step up to new role Add to ...

When the time is right, he’ll play the video on his laptop. It was his sister’s idea, after all.

Mandi had been fighting her cancer, but insisted on being there with her grandmother, mom, dad and fiancé Kaylem, standing on the roof of a Seattle apartment building sending taped wishes to her kid brother, the one playing forward for Team Canada.

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Jaden Schwartz watched that video before the 2011 world junior hockey championships in Buffalo. He will watch it again before the 2012 tournament in Alberta – site of the annual rite of passage and national obsession. The video was one of the first items he packed, knowing some things can’t be changed and some can.

It’s been a year since Jaden last competed in a Hockey Canada jersey. In that time, he has turned 19, lost his sister Mandi, 23, to leukemia, recovered from the fractured ankle that cut short his first world junior experience and, lo and behold, found himself right back with the Canadian national junior team, this time as the decision makers’ best choice to be captain.

Having Jaden Schwartz lead his new teammates would be a fitting move. The other day, when Canada’s head coach, Don Hay, was describing what he wanted from his players, he spoke not so much about on-ice skills but of a mindset. “Hockey smarts and character is very important,” Mr. Hay explained. “It’s a short tournament. The players have to pick things up quick and do the right thing. That’s all about character.”

The world juniors test Canadian players like no other players are tested. The pressure is immense; finishing second is not an option. Not only is the 2012 tournament being staged in Edmonton and Calgary, where every shift will be analyzed and debated, the Canadian team is being asked to avenge the 2011 meltdown that saw Canada surrender five third-period goals and lose to Russia. That’s put a premium on Canada icing a character group and why Schwartz is so critical to the mix.

Wilcox, Sask.-born Jaden is a gifted player, with good quickness and a goal scorer’s hands. He was an offensive star with the Saskatchewan Junior League Notre Dame Hounds. He totalled 83 points in 60 games to lead the U.S. Hockey League. Last season as a freshman with the NCAA Colorado College Tigers, he scored 47 points in 30 games. That’s the skill side; his character has come the hard way.

The Schwartz family was thrust into the national spotlight when Mandi, a star forward on the Yale University women’s hockey team, was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia and became the source of a bone marrow/stem cell drive to find a donor for her and others. Through it all, Jaden experienced tremendous highs – being taken in the first round of the 2010 NHL draft by the St. Louis Blues – and crushing lows. His parents had rented an apartment in Seattle to be close to Mandi, who underwent a stem-cell transplant.

Everything came crashing down last December. In his second game at the world junior tournament, Jaden stepped onto the ice for his first shift and injured his ankle. He tried to skate through it, only to learn the next day that it was fractured. Tournament over. His parents and older brother Rylan were in Buffalo with him when the text came from Mandi. The doctors could do no more.

“We had to tell the boys in the [hotel]lobby,” father Rick Schwartz recalled. “Jaden was on crutches. The tears started. We all hugged each other. Rylan had to go back to Colorado Springs [he also plays for Colorado College] Carol [his wife]went home. I stayed with Jaden. It was so hard to be there and not be home, but I couldn’t leave Jaden alone.”

Jaden stayed and watched his teammates lose to Russia. With Mandi greeting him at his Saskatchewan homecoming, he did the only thing he could think of: He gave her his silver medal.

“Everything happens for a reason,” Jaden said. “I got hurt and that gave me an opportunity to go home after the world juniors and spend some time with Mandi. The injury gave me that chance.”

It was the last stretch of time the two would spend together. The father remembers how his daughter “waited for the boys to finish their hockey season,” then passed away on April 3.

Jaden is one of four returning players from the 2011 team. His teammates appreciate his slick puck handling; his coaches speak of his commitment. With his parents again planning to be in the crowd to watch him play, Jaden knows what he has to do. Leave it all on the ice. No disappointment; no regrets. And this time a gold medal instead of silver.

When the moment is right, he’ll play the Seattle video and watch his sister wishing him the best all over again. For inspiration, he said.

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