Further evidence that the hockey world is shrinking comes Monday when a trio of players who cut their teeth at the Notre Dame Academy in Wilcox, Sask., clash in the world junior opener between Canada and Finland.
Two key members of Canada's leadership group, captain Jaden Schwartz and alternate captain Brandon Gormley, came through the Notre Dame system, as did Finland's starting goaltender, Christopher Gibson, he of the decidedly un-Finn like surname.
Gibson played for Notre Dame's 2009 Telus Cup midget championship team, which is where Schwartz got to know him.
"He started as a backup in Notre Dame and worked his way up, so that just shows how hard a worker he is," Schwartz said. "I went to school with him there; I've known him for a while. He's a good goaltender and he's been in big games before. I look forward to playing him on Boxing Day."
The Finns represent a particularly interesting opponent this year, given they are also here with the YouTube sensations, the Granlund brothers, Mikael and Markus. Mikael, at 19, is the oldest and playing in his third world junior. It would be his fourth, except he missed the 2011 event with a concussion. The ninth overall pick in the 2010 entry draft to the Minnesota Wild, Mikael got all kinds of publicity last spring for scoring a goal, lacrosse-style, at the senior world championships on behalf of Finland. It was a bit of show-boating for sure, but it also demonstrated his high skill level. In an exhibition game last Monday against Canada, Mikael was a highlight reel waiting for happen on almost every shift in the first half of the game.
His younger brother, Markus, scored a similar style goal in league action this year. He was a Calgary Flames draft choice, 45th overall, in 2011. On a team that always boasts strong goaltending, the siblings' offensive savvy could make Finland an interesting dark horse.
"They are pretty talented guys," Finnish coach Raimo Helminen said of the Granlund brothers. "They have pretty big hearts. They should help us lots."
Gibson, a Los Angeles Kings second-rounder last June and currently the third-year starter for the Chicoutimi Saguenéens of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, has been playing in Canada for the past four years and says he's looking forward to the crowds at this sold-out tournament, especially in the opener against Canada.
"You have to play at your best in these types of games," said Gibson, who was cautiously optimistic about Finland's chances in the tournament. "I don't want to jinx us but I think we can be really in the top. We have a good team. We've got guys who can score a lot of goals and we can play defensively."
WORLD JUNIOR FACTS
WHAT IT IS
The 2012 world junior tournament – officially known as the International Ice Hockey Federation's men's under-20 championship – will take place in Edmonton and Calgary between Boxing Day and Jan. 5
12 teams, divided into two groups, seeded on the basis of the 2011 tournament results. In the preliminary round, Group A, in Calgary, features the defending gold medalists from Russia along with Latvia, Slovakia, Sweden and Switzerland. Group B, in Edmonton, includes Canada, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland and the United States.
For the first time in history, the world juniors will be played in two NHL arenas. The tournament attendance record from 2009 in Ottawa (453,282 spectators, an average of 14,622 a game) is expected to fall with a thud.
Canada will stage the tournament for the 10th time. Past Canadian host cities include Regina and Saskatoon (2010), Ottawa (2009), Vancouver, Kamloops and Kelowna (2006), Halifax and Sydney (2003), Winnipeg (1999), Red Deer (1995), Saskatoon (1991), Hamilton (1986) and Montreal (1978).
WHAT'S AT STAKE
Gold. Canada leads the historic standings with 15 gold medals, while the Soviet Union/Russia has 13. Canada has been to 10 consecutive gold-medal games, winning five in a row between 2005 and 2009. They lost the 2010 and 2011 finals to the United States and Russia, respectively.
NEWS AND NOTES
THE TWITTER PHENOMENON
To tweet or not to tweet, that is the question. And maybe if the Bard were alive now, we would be getting Hamlet spun out to us 140 characters at a time. But Canadian coach Don Hay has a long history with junior players and understands that cellphone usage, especially at it relates to social media, is an issue for an event of this magnitude. To that end, the Canadian players set their own internal policy, limiting but not eliminating the use of their cellphones in the tournament. "The cellphone is a big part of their lives," Hay said. "Some of them would rather shower in cold water than not have their cellphone. It's something that's important. If you make a rule to take it away, it could be a bad reaction."
THE 13th MAN
What Hay particularly remembers about the 1995 tournament in Red Deer, Alta., during his previous turn behind the bench of a world junior team, is the amount of time the coaches put into selecting the 13th forward on the team. World junior rules permit 22 players on the roster and, over time, the player that started as the extra man up front has frequently gone on to play himself into a far more prominent role.
On the night before he finalized the roster for the 1995 world junior team, Hay sat down with a trio of highly rated prospects and spelled out their role. They were under consideration for a support position on the team, not the primary roles they were used to with their junior teams. Could they handle that designation without undermining team chemistry?
"I remember the night before, Ryan Smyth, Darcy Tucker and Jeff O'Neill, I talked to all three of those guys and told them the same thing – there's a chance you could be the 13th guy," Hay said. "And that's the real fun part of this tournament – and how competitive it is. Guys change their role from game to game.
"Guys that were maybe going to be your shutdown guy, he ends up being your 13th guy, and somebody else moves up into his position. I just think that guys have got to be really adaptable. That 13th forward is a really valuable guy.
"Do you pick more of a skilled guy, as your 13th? Do you pick more of a specialist? Do you pick more of a checker? You look last year, they had [Jaden]Schwartz go down early and the 13th guy couldn't replace him – and that hurt. That hurt."
THE FINAL CUT
Hay also remembered that the final cut in 1995 was Brett Lindros and that omission created a controversy, given Lindros's reputation and pedigree, the ninth overall pick in the 1994 NHL entry draft. "I was a young coach at that time. That was a big decision. People were wondering if I'd make the right decision and it turned out to be the right decision because we won a gold medal.
"The decision-making is a big part of the coaching staff's job here. It just seems like 1995 just zipped by and then you're done and you're back on your club team and it's all over. Now it's 17 years later and you start to think back to memories of it, and they come and go in flashes. Some are good, most of them are pretty good."