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Canada's Jonathan Drouin #29 looks on from the bench during preliminary round action against the U.S. at the 2013 IIHF Ice Hockey U20 World Championship. (Andre Ringuette/Andre Ringuette/HHOF-IIHF Images)
Canada's Jonathan Drouin #29 looks on from the bench during preliminary round action against the U.S. at the 2013 IIHF Ice Hockey U20 World Championship. (Andre Ringuette/Andre Ringuette/HHOF-IIHF Images)

world junior championship

Jonathan Drouin has gone from from under the radar to boy wonder Add to ...

He looks like he would be asked for ID if he lined up to get on a Bouncy Castle.

Everything about him – teeth, skin, shock of hair, percolating grin – says “adolescent,” when usually 17-year-olds who play in world championships have been described as “already men.”

The world junior hockey championship, after all, is for under-20s and is commonly referred to as a tournament for 19-year-olds.

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Even that other 17-year-old Canadian, Nathan MacKinnon – the precocious young forward from Sidney Crosby’s hometown of Cole Harbour, N.S. – looks like a “compact man” with his square jaw and soldier’s stare.

Not Jonathan Drouin. If Team Canada ever awards him the Cape of the Game he’ll probably ask for the mask and plastic sword that goes with it.

He gets a little giddy talking about himself. He talks so fast, in both official languages, that his mouth seems a full time zone in front of his thoughts, which may well be because he’s afraid to think about what’s happening to him and has chosen, instead, to cover up with such a solid stream of clichés that it makes the attending media, well ... giddy.

So we will have to speak for him.

Seventeen-year-olds aren’t even supposed to make these teams. It happens, but rarely. You can easily identify them on the ice, as International Ice Hockey Federation rules require under-18s wear the full mask/cage rather than the half visor the older under-20s choose.

Evgeny Malkin, the scoring leader and MVP the last time the NHL had a season, played in the WJC at 17, but Malkin already towered over most of his teammates and opponents.

Eric Lindros hadn’t quite turned 17 when he helped Canada to the gold medal in the 1990 tournament and was still 17 when Canada won again in 1991 – but Lindros, like Malkin, was simply too large, too powerful and too skilled to be denied.

There is also the case of John Tavares, a natural goal scorer who was chosen for the team at 17 in 2008, played a small role, but gained enough experience that the following year, Ottawa in 2009, he led Team Canada to its last gold medal and was chosen tournament MVP.

And finally, there is Wayne Gretzky, who was Wayne Gretzky. He hadn’t quite turned 17 when the tournament was held in Montreal in 1978 but led all tournament scorers in points with 17 in only six games. The following year he might have again played at 17 but for the fact he had already turned professional with the World Hockey Association’s Indianapolis Racers.

What, then, to make of this young man from Ste-Agathe, Que., who talks almost as fast as he skates?

If there is already one great surprise of the 2013 world juniors, it is clearly Jonathan Drouin of Canada.

On Monday, head coach Steve Spott made the surprise announcement that Drouin would be moved to the top line and take the spot that had previously gone to Jonathan Huberdeau. Drouin would join team captain Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Mark Scheifele, two much older juniors who are also NHL “veterans.” (Well, Scheifele had a handful of games last year with the Winnipeg Jets and “RNH” would likely have been chosen NHL rookie-of-the-year had it not been for injury.)

“I was a little surprised,” Drouin says. “I thought they’d had great games together. But I guess they wanted to mix it up a little bit.”

Spott did indeed. He called it a different “look” but the fact is he knew, as all who follow these junior championships know, that if Canada has one weakness that has kept them away from the gold medal since Tavares’s year in Ottawa, it is scoring punch.

“When I got to the rink I saw the board with the lineup,” Drouin says, “I was pretty happy about that.”

So, too, was Spott. The effect was magical: Scheifele and Drouin both scored as Canada defeated co-favourite Russia 4-1. Drouin was chosen Canadian player of the game when it was over.

Drouin’s play, right from training camp, has been so mature, so solid that he is the talk of the scouts gathering here in increasing numbers. There were said to be three candidates in Ufa for No.1 pick overall in the next NHL draft: MacKinnon and Drouin for Canada and Seth Jones for the United States. While none has faltered, Drouin has cleared soared.

“The draft is in June,” Drouin says, “But right not we’re not here to think about it.”

Others are, however, and he has to be acutely aware of this no matter what his motor mouth is claiming: “I don’t think about stuff like that. The goal helped the team. It didn’t help my stats or anything. We’re here to win a gold medal.”

It is hard to believe that not much more than a year ago this kid, who used to dream of playing with Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg of the Colorado Avalanche, was playing midget hockey for the Lac St. Louis Lions. He jumped from AAA competition straight into the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, joining the Halifax Mooseheads where he was soon on a line with the gifted MacKinnon.

Few saw him coming. He wasn’t even on Team Canada’s radar last summer when the pre-selection talk was ongoing.

No one, it seemed, predicted that he would command a look from Team Canada by averaging two points a game near the halfway point of the current season. When Spott flew to Halifax to get a look at MacKinnon and Drouin he was able only to watch MacKinnon, as Drouin – a rather fearless little player who seems to prefer traffic to open ice – was too banged up to play. Still, Spott heard so much about the youngster – his quick feet, his creative hands, his ability to shield the puck from checkers – that he agreed with those who insisted Drouin be invited to the Calgary camp. The youngster was so dominant in a couple of exhibition games the coaches felt they had no option but to give him a spot.

None, however, saw that spot as on Canada’s top line.

But that’s where Jonathan Drouin will again line up Thursday, when the semi-finals begin.

Follow on Twitter: @RoyMacG

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