There is a certain symmetry to the world junior hockey championship this year as it relates to Devante Smith-Pelly, who will be front and centre in the tournament, one of only two players who joined the squad directly from an NHL roster.
A year ago, Smith-Pelly was watching the tournament from the outside while his coach with the Ontario Hockey League's Mississauga St. Michael's Majors, Dave Cameron, was running the show. This year? Their roles are reversed. Cameron is an interested spectator, watching closely as one of his former protégés takes a leading role, in trying to help Canada win gold.
Smith-Pelly played three seasons for Cameron at St. Mike's, and in the beginning it wasn't clear where his career would go. The 17-year-old version of Smith-Pelly had conditioning and weight problems and, at one point, Cameron instituted a rule: If Smith-Pelly was ever carrying more than 210 pounds, he would be out of the lineup that night.
"I have to admit, when I was 16 or 17, I wasn't committed to off-ice as much as I should have been," Toronto-born Smith-Pelly said in an interview. "I'm real glad I had a coach who was really tough on me and made sure I knew that if I wanted to get to the next level, I'd have to get all that stuff under control.
"Last year, going into the season, I really took that message to heart and made sure that it wasn't a problem. I made sure it was all gone. I owe a lot to Mr. Cameron. I'd say he is one of the biggest reasons I'm playing in the NHL at 19."
The other Canadian teenagers playing in the NHL this year were chosen in the top 10 of the NHL's entry draft. By contrast, Smith-Pelly went 42nd overall to the Anaheim Ducks in 2010, following his second junior season. But it was last season when Smith-Pelly blossomed – a 36-goal regular season followed by an eye-popping playoff, in which he scored 15 goals in 20 games and was named to the Memorial Cup all-star team. Smith-Pelly carried that fabulous finish into a strong summer camp for the world junior team.
Eventually, the question wasn't whether Smith-Pelly was good enough to make the Canadian squad, but whether the Ducks would give him a month away from his NHL duties to represent his country internationally.
The Ducks consented, as did the Tampa Bay Lightning in freeing up Brett Connolly.
For Canada's first exhibition game against Finland on Monday, Smith-Pelly was pencilled in alongside Winnipeg Jets prospect Mark Scheifele on what figures to be the No. 1 line for coach Don Hay. Hay will wait until after the three pretournament games before naming his captains and associates, but Smith-Pelly (along with returning forward Jaden Schwartz and defenceman Brandon Gormley) are considered strong candidates to all get letters.
Hay particularly likes the physical dimension that Smith-Pelly brings.
"You have Smith-Pelly who will create a lot of physical play and I think guys will really follow him."
As for Smith-Pelly, he understands he has a rare opportunity to achieve two dreams – making the NHL, playing for his country at the world juniors – in a single season. Win or lose, Smith-Pelly has been assured by Ducks general manager Bob Murray that he'll be back in sunny California to resume his NHL career once the tournament is over.
"Not a lot of people do get the chance to represent their country; it doesn't happen that often," Smith-Pelly said. "Not getting a chance last year, and then with me making the team this year in the NHL, I thought that was it – and I'd never get the chance to play in something like this. It was something I wanted to do. It's exciting, it's a feeling you can't really describe, especially with it being in Canada. I just can't wait for that first real game."