And so, at midnight on Saturday, Mountain Standard Time, Mark Scheifele will say farewell to what he calls “probably the best year of my life.”
How he feels at the end of the New Year’s Eve match between Canada and a Team U.S.A. desperate to salvage some pride out of the tournament may well determine whether or not 2011 is indeed the best of the 18 years the native of Kitchener, Ont., has so far known.
For Mark Scheifele has to get going.
This may seem a strange statement when applied to a team that has scored 23 goals in only three games, but Scheifele knows it to be true just as his coach, Don Hay, knows it not only to be true but necessary.
The preliminary rounds of the World Junior Hockey Championship are largely a farce – perhaps never so perfectly illustrated as in Russia’s 14-0 crunch of Latvia on Thursday in which a single player, Russian captain Yevgeni Kuznetsov counted nine points – and Team Canada has yet to be even slightly tested. In scoring 23 times, they have allowed but three, two of those coming in the third period of Thursday’s 10-2 thrashing of Denmark when the Canadians, clearly bored, lost focus as well as interest.
That task will only get tougher, perhaps as early as this meeting between Canada and the U.S. While the Americans have had a terrible tournament -- beaten earlier 4-1 by Finland and defeated Friday 5-2 by the Czechs -- the Canada-U.S.A. games have traditionally been hotly contested. Two years ago in Saskatoon, the teams exchanged wins, the Americans taking the gold-medal match in overtime. Canadian players who are expected to score will most certainly be required next week -- but perhaps as early as this otherwise meaningless New Year's match.
“In a short tournament,” Hay warned earlier this week, “you’re not going to wait to long to see if they get going.”
There was no need for Hay to name Scheifele. The junior star with the Barrie Colts has the size (6’3”, 184 lbs) and the credentials. Drafted seventh overall by the re-born Winnipeg Jets, he was such a pre-season sensation with the Jets (scoring two goals and two assists in his first pre-season game, as well as being named first star) that the Jets signed him to a three-year NHL contract and put him on the roster for the opening of the regular season. He had, after all, led the entire team in scoring in the pre-season.
Jets head coach Claude Noel at one point stated he would be “stunned” if the easygoing teenager wasn’t kept on the team. However, when Scheifele could manage only a single goal in seven real NHL games, Jets management wisely decided to return him to his junior team for more ice time and more experience. In only 19 games back with his junior club, he had an impressive 36 points.
Scheifele, an eternal optimist, thought being sent back was the right thing for him, despite his admitted “disappointment” about not being able to remain playing at the higher level.
“It’s probably been the best year of my life,” says this hockey late bloomer. “To get drafted [in the Ontario Hockey League]and play there a year and then playing under-18s and then getting drafted [in the NHL]and getting to start in Winnipeg – it’s been great.
“When Winnipeg decided to send me down I was able to try out for this team.”
His return to junior was seen as a blessing for Team Canada, as there were early concerns about this team’s ability to score, given that several of the finest teenage hockey players in the country had managed to stick with their NHL clubs, including rookie sensation Ryan Nugent-Hopkins with the Edmonton Oilers.
That early worry has not proved out – though it is admittedly difficult to draw any sensible conclusions given the quality of opponents the powerful Canadian juniors have so far faced.
Even so, following Thursday’s romp over Denmark, Scheifele stood 25th in tournament scoring, behind 10 Canadian teammates including Mark Stone, tied for third (six goals, one assist) with fellow Canadians Ryan Strome (three goals, four assists) and Jonathan Huberdeau (one goal, six assists).
Scheifele, who did not crack the scoring sheet until he scored two late goals in Canada’s 5-0 victory over the Czech Republic, was held to a single assist against Denmark when at times it appeared the Canadians could score at will.
Scheifele says it felt great to “get that monkey off my back” when those two goals went in against the Czechs – both scored off perfect passes from his Barrie Colts teammate and closest hockey friend Tanner Pearson.
“I was putting pressure on myself,” he admits. “That’s how you kind of motivate yourself, by putting extra pressure and trying to get the best of myself.”
“Sometimes,” says Hay, “that goal scorer is looking for that goal to get jump-started.”
And yet, it hasn’t happened – at least so far.
Scheifele hardly needs to be told. “It’s a short tournament,” he says, echoing his coach. “You have to go with who’s producing. You have to take whatever role they give you. One night it could be a shut-down role, one night it could be a scoring role.
“I’m willing to do whatever it takes.”
With the real tournament about to begin, however, that “whatever it takes” may still mean goals from Mark Scheifele.