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A minor hockey league player carries the Canadian flag prior to Team Canada's game against Finland at the IIHF World Junior Championships in Calgary, Jan. 5, 2012. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)
A minor hockey league player carries the Canadian flag prior to Team Canada's game against Finland at the IIHF World Junior Championships in Calgary, Jan. 5, 2012. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Juniors shooting for hockey gold get some help from NHL lockout Add to ...

Boxing Day in Canada generally features three staples – leftover turkey, 8 a.m. mall openings and the beginning of the world junior hockey championship. But this year, thanks to the ongoing NHL lockout, Canadian hockey fans will have something extra to cheer about.

Up to half-a-dozen junior stars who might otherwise be in the National Hockey League are suddenly available to play for Canada at the 2013 world junior championships in Ufa, Russia. That mirrors what happened during the last lockout – 2005 – when the likes of the teenaged Sidney Crosby and Shea Weber were able to play in the world under-20 tournament in North Dakota, because NHL play had ground to a standstill that year too.

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Canada hasn’t won the world juniors since 2009, and a primary reason is that so many of the nation’s top eligible juniors jump to the NHL before they turn 20 –and thus are generally not made available to play in the tournament.

Thanks to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and players’ association executive director Donald Fehr, that is not the case this year.

Barring an unexpected settlement to the NHL labour dispute, last year’s Calder Trophy runner-up as the NHL’s rookie of the year, Edmonton Oilers wunderkind Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, will be included on Canada’s talent-laden team.

On Boxing Day last year, when he might have been playing for Canada in the 2011 world juniors, Mr. Nugent-Hopkins was ripping it up in the NHL, tied with Patrick Kane, Nicklas Backstrom and James Neal for 19th in the scoring race. He has been keeping busy in the American Hockey League, where he regularly plays with Jordan Eberle, one of Canada’s most prolific world junior players ever. Assuming he gets medical clearance for a nagging shoulder problem, Mr. Nugent-Hopkins will have the chance to follow in Mr. Eberle’s footsteps, and maybe be a world junior hero.

“I know he wants to be part of this,” said Kevin Prendergast, Hockey Canada’s chief scout. “Knowing the young man, he’s very mature. He’s a high-end, high-calibre hockey player, so we’re looking forward to seeing him when he gets here next week.”

Six players who competed for last year’s bronze-medal team are back, including forwards Ryan Strome (New York Islanders), Mark Scheifele (Winnipeg Jets), Jonathan Huberdeau (Florida Panthers) and Boone Jenner (Columbus Blue Jackets), along with defencemen Doug Hamilton (Boston Bruins) and Scott Harrington (Pittsburgh Penguins).

“Canada, over the last couple of years, has been the one country that’s hurt the most by the NHL call-ups and the players that go there,” Mr. Prendergast said. “The big thing for us is that the players that are coming back, the Scheifeles and the Stromes, the Dougie Hamiltons, they’re that much more mature and physically stronger. It’s a 20-year-old tournament. It just gives us a better opportunity – when you have kids that are a little more mature and physically stronger.”

The last two times the NHL came to a halt under similar circumstances – world juniors in Red Deer (1995) and North Dakota (2005) – Canada put together star-studded rosters and emerged with gold medals. In addition to Mr. Crosby and Mr. Weber, the North Dakota team featured captain Patrice Bergeron, who found himself in the same situation as Mr. Nugent-Hopkins does this time around. Mr. Bergeron played in the NHL as an 18-year-old with the Boston Bruins, competed for Canada in a senior world championships and still had junior eligibility remaining.

Defenceman Ryan Murray – the second player chosen in last June’s NHL entry draft – can’t play because he’s out for the season recovering from shoulder surgery. But even without him, defence is Canada’s deepest position, according to coach Steve Spott.

Goaltending, meanwhile, is in the hands of four newcomers, but the favourite to win the starting job is Malcolm Subban, the brother of the Montreal Canadiens’ P.K. Subban and a Bruins first-round draft choice. And even though the tournament generally features 19-year-olds, Canada invited a pair of 17-year-olds from the Halifax Mooseheads, Nathan MacKinnon and Jonathan Drouin, to attend. Mr. MacKinnon is considered the top prospect to go first overall in the 2013 NHL entry draft.

After winning five consecutive world juniors from 2005 to 2009, Canada has settled for two silvers and a bronze in the past three years. Normally, going to Europe is considered a disadvantage for the Canadians because they do not benefit from the supportive and wildly partisan home crowds, but the past two times the event was played overseas, Canada emerged victorious.

With an unusually experienced team this year, the chances will be greatly enhanced. The NHL is where they all want to be, but if the NHL cannot figure out how to settle its dispute with the players, then the world junior tournament in the unexpected beneficiary. With every cloud, a silver lining. Maybe, for Canada’s sake, even gold.

 

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