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Canada's Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jonathan Huberdeau stand behind head coach Steve Spott during team practice (MARK BLINCH/REUTERS)
Canada's Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jonathan Huberdeau stand behind head coach Steve Spott during team practice (MARK BLINCH/REUTERS)

Canadian junior team in right frame of mind prior to semi-final vs. U.S. Add to ...

Good cop, bad cop.

Sometimes a coach has to be both; only rarely does he have to be both at the same time.

Team Canada head coach Steve Spott knew he had to do something to carry his young team over the New Year’s hump – that down time between the end of the round robin and the beginning of the critical and deciding games of the 2013 World Junior Hockey Championship.

You want them loose but not too loose, relaxed but ready for Thursday’s semifinal, when Team Canada will again play the United States. The Americans advanced by defeating a listless, almost skill-less Czech Republic 7-0 Wednesday in a quarter-final match.

Canada previously defeated USA 2-1 in the preliminary round.

“We’ve got a good book on them,” said Spott following the American victory, but he conceded that it was “tough to get a real accurate read on [the U.S-Czezh] game.”

The Americans showed exceptional speed and a devastating power play – five goals – as Czech players ran into bad penalty after bad penalty. John Gaudreau was USA’s best player as the swift little forward scored a hattrick .

“They’ve got real good speed,” said Spott, who also commended the Americans on the way in which they get their defence – top prospect Seth Jones, in particular – up into the play.

“We haven’t seen our best hockey yet in this tournament,” said USA captain Jake McCabe.

It should be a remarkable game Thursday, as the Americans came into the event one of the clear favourites, only to lose one-goal games to equally strong Russia and Canada.

Spott’s job, while waiting to find out who would be Canada’s opponent, has been to keep his players both loose and focused at the same time. New Year’s Day he kept them off the ice. The only hockey they played was X-Box back at the hotel and he had them come to the rink for an impromptu soccer game in one of the larger corridors. Several player claimed there was almost as much “body contact” during the soccer game as there has been in some of the games played on the big ice.

According to young Jonathan Drouin, who scored two goals, the game was lost when Jonathan Huberdeau turned over the ball, leading to the winning goal for the other side.

“He shouldn’t have slept well,” said the 17-year-old star.

“He’s lying,” countered Huberdeau. “I scored the winner.”

The mood was decidedly light as practice opened in the morning prior to the U.S.A. – Czech Republic match. Spott had discreetly taped a large sign on the back of assistant coach Don Nachbaur with the assistant’s name written in large letters. Nachbaur is forever telling the kids that it’s not about the name on the back of the jersey but the crest on the front.

“What an ass!” Nachbaur joked when he met the media and finally noticed the sign.

“[I guess] Somebody’s got to loosen things up around here.”

Spott said the jokes and diversions were deliberate: “We all know about the amount of stress” involved in a tournament such as this. What pressure they kids don’t put on themselves the country pours on with its over-the-top expectations of a gold medal.

The good cop tried to lighten that pressure. And yet, when the players were on the ice, it was Bad Cop Spott from time to time shouting at them and even cursing botched drills.

“I only bark at them to get their attention,” he said.

At this point in the tournament, it is “win or else.” Players have to be fully at attention from the first drop of the puck. Canada in recent years has come to pivotal games and squandered opportunity, something that this Team Canada is determined will not happen this year.

Spot also had several of the six returning players from last year talk to the group about making the most of an opportunity that, as they well know, can slip so easily through the hands if one is not as prepared as is humanly possible.

“Once bitten, twice shy,” said Spott.

The secret to success, obviously, is as simple as it was put by American forward Alex Galchenyuk when asked what the Americans have to do to rain revenge on Canada.

“Score more goals.”

Same for the Canadians if they hope to challenge for the gold medal.

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