Silver is the colour of disappointment in the world championships of junior hockey.
That’s the kind of pressure that sits on the neck of the team’s head coach Don Hay. The national junior squad went to the gold medal game the last two tournaments and came up short – last time yielding five third-period goals to Russia to lose gold.
It’s up to Hay – a four-time Memorial Cup winner, sometime NHL coach in Phoenix and Calgary and head coach of the Vancouver Giants – to call the signals that restore the post-Christmas championship for Canada. To go three junior tournaments without a gold would set off alarm bells in this country.
The task is onerous, but he can handle the demands of the job. Hay is a teacher, a motivator – and he’s won more than 500 junior games. Hay was the national junior coach before, in 1995. That was a year the NHL was in a lockout and all the country’s hockey focus was the juniors and on Hay. He knows the country expects a gold medal out of a team of teenagers. He knows the importance of this tournament in Canada. While the world junior tournament, to be played in Calgary and Edmonton, isn’t a huge seller in most markets in the world, in Canada it’s a crucible.
High expectations aren’t negatives, Hay says. “It means people think you have a chance to win.”
He’s been thinking like a strategist, not a talent evaluator, since he was appointed last May. The last 13 cuts were made from training camp this week as Hay sought out 22 players who would mould together as Canada’s best team . They’re not only goal scorers but those who would play roles and be flexible enough to take unfamiliar positions in the event of injuries. Hay also expects the team to affix the Canadian brand to its game – fast and physical.
The goalie who went in as backup last year, Niagara Falls Ice Dog Mark Visentin, has played his way into a role as Hay’s probable starter. It’s as much character as ability. He showed tremendous maturity in facing questions after last winter’s third-period collapse handed the gold to the Russians.
“I’ve lived the moment. I can’t go back and change it,” Visentin says. He’s not afraid to talk about what happened. It’s part of his history. But he can also point to the fact that the meltdown was an aberration. He was, in fact, the OHL’s best goalie with a 30-9-6 record, a 2,52 goals against average and .917 save percentage.
It’s not just the kids who are expected to perform, but the coach.
“I really feel this is a time for me to step back in,” Hay says. “It’s an honour for me. I’m a better coach now. I’m more experienced. I’ve seen different situations. I realize the importance of the tournament to everyone in Canada.”