The cold, harsh reality hit Alex Pietrangelo as he walked from the airplane: He wasn't in the NHL any more. At least not for the next three weeks as he tries to help the Canadian junior hockey team win a sixth consecutive gold medal.
"I walked 100 feet outside the [Regina International]Airport and my hands were frozen," said Pietrangelo, a 6-foot-3, 207-pound defenceman from King City, Ont.
"Oh my goodness. It was so cold. No comment on the weather. No comment."
The temperature in Saskatchewan's capital city dropped to minus-40 (with the wind-chill factor) during the weekend as 35 players began vying for 22 spots on Canada's roster.
Pietrangelo, 19, is one of six returnees from last year's gold medal-winning squad, but he's the only player who has been sent to the junior camp from his NHL team, the St. Louis Blues.
Instead of being disappointed about re-joining the junior team, Pietrangelo said he was "excited about representing my country" and eager to renew friendships with his teammates.
"[The Blues]think very highly - as most NHL teams do - of the junior level," said Pietrangelo, whose strong performance was commended by Canadian head coach Willie Desjardins following an initial intra-squad game yesterday.
"It's going to help my game. I'll get a lot of confidence here, hopefully playing a lot of minutes, because it's great hockey. You can't go wrong sending somebody here."
A first-round draft choice from the OHL's Niagara Ice Dogs in 2008, Pietrangelo played eight games with St. Louis last season before returning to Niagara. He has played only nine NHL games this season. He has one goal, one assist, six penalty minutes and is a minus-9 - a statistic the Blues would like him to upgrade through his pending games during the junior tournament.
There are eight other Canadian players with junior eligibility who have stayed with their respective NHL teams - Steve Stamkos (Tampa Bay), John Tavares (New York Islanders), Ryan O'Reilly (Colorado), Matt Duchene (Colorado), Evander Kane (Atlanta), Michael Del Zotto (New York Rangers), James Wright (Tampa Bay) and Tyler Myers (Buffalo).
According to Al Murray, Hockey Canada's head scout, Hockey Canada has contacted the particular NHL teams to see if those players would be available.
"Most of them are playing at least third-line minutes; if you look I don't think any of them are averaging less than 12 minutes [per game]" Murray said. "If you're playing 12 minutes a game on an NHL team every night, they can't let you go.
"In the games Petro played he was averaging 15 minutes a game, but he hadn't played many games. They feel this is a good developmental opportunity for him, and we agree."
Pietrangelo, Colten Teubert of the Regina Pats and Ryan Ellis of the Windsor Spitfires are the three returning defencemen from the team that won gold last year in Ottawa. Ellis, an offensive dynamo, will likely be the point man on Canada's power play while Pietrangelo.
"When you're a returning guy you have more experience, and experience is always key in a tournament," Desjardins said. "[Pietrangelo]s been through it before and he's got NHL experience, so he's a guy we're going to depend on."
The junior team was scheduled to play a second intra-squad game yesterday with an exhibition game against university players slated for today. Three more tune-up games are scheduled before Canada opens its round-robin Dec. 26 in Saskatoon against Latvia.
The final roster could be declared as early as tomorrow.
Special to The Globe and Mail
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