ETOBICOKE, Ont – Team Canada spent the last week practicing for the World Junior Championships at the spanking new Meridian Centre in St. Catharines. Hundreds of fans – and scores of autograph hounds – showed up every day to watch a roster filled with future NHLers.
When the team broke camp Thursday, it was Buffalo Sabres prospect extraordinaire Sam Reinhart who was chosen to take the microphone and thank its adoring public.
It was on to Toronto Friday, to the Air Canada Centre and to 18,000-plus red-and-white maniacs in the house for an exhibition game against Russia. There’s another exhibition today in Ottawa against Sweden, a third one Tuesday against Switzerland in Montreal. The tournament starts Friday in Montreal against Slovakia.
Remember all the fans who piled across the Peace Bridge into First Niagara Center four years ago? This is going to be one wacky affair for the boys from north of the border.
“Even when it was Sweden last year, we sensed that pride all through the whole tournament and really built with the fans that were there and the motivation they gave us,” Reinhart said here Saturday. “Obviously in the last week or so, the frenzy and support we have at home is really building.
“We’ve all been a part of it, whether it’s going to play over there or being in Canada before and watching when we’ve hosted the tournament. We know what it means being around it all. We’re having fun with it and really appreciate the support.”
The mood was light Saturday inside the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Mastercard Centre facility. It wasn’t a practice, it was more of a photo shoot for television networks. Reinhart dangled the puck around with several players, including some kid named Connor McDavid you may have heard a thing or two about.
The Sabres, and especially General Manager Tim Murray, will be watching Reinhart closely in this tournament. They need to see elite-level performance befitting the No. 2 overall pick in the draft. Reinhart, remember, had just one assist in nine NHL games and was physically overmatched before Buffalo returned him to junior hockey.
At Kootenay of the Western League, Reinhart has eight goals and 19 assists in just 15 games – including nine multi-point outings. He’s out of his league there too, but the Sabres have nowhere else to put him this season.
“You get your confidence back, get a feel for things and you’re obviously playing more,” Reinhart said. “I feel like I’ve been getting better every day.”
Reinhart said he learned lessons in the NHL about the pace of games and consistency in preparation. He’s aware how much better the Sabres have been playing since he left but said he hasn’t seen too many of their games. The kid’s been pretty busy after all.
“My focus is here and solely here right now. And that’s the most important thing for me,” he said. “I know Tim tried to reach out to me. I haven’t had a chance to talk to him, but I certainly know he’s watching me close.”
Reinhart has spent camp centering Max Domi (Tie’s kid) and Anthony Duclair, just sent back to the tourney by the New York Rangers. Reports out of Toronto had them dominant at times in Friday’s 2-1 overtime loss to Russia, a game that Canada had a 53-20 bulge in shots on goal. Observers are impressed with the line’s burgeoning chemistry, but it’s no surprise to Reinhart.
“I’ve played with both those guys in different tournaments and they’re good players,” Reinhart said. “You have smart, skilled guys who play at that pace and it’s easy to quickly adapt to them.”
The big news in advance of Sunday’s game is McDavid will make his debut after being on the shelf for a few weeks with a broken hand. The other item of note is that Canada is expected to name its captains.
There’s been plenty of speculation that Reinhart would get the ‘C’, although that honor might now go to Curtis Lazar after he joined the team in the last few days.
Lazar, who scored his first NHL goal for Ottawa in Monday’s loss to the Sabres in First Niagara Center, was a last-minute release to the tournament and the chatter has been that the Sens may have said Lazar gets his release only if he’s the captain.
If he’s not named captain, Reinhart is almost certain to be named one of the two alternates.
“You give me a letter or not and that’s not going to stop me or make me be a leader for this team,” Reinhart said. “I’m going to be a leader and bring that experience. The good thing about a team like this is that there’s so many leaders on it already. That makes that aspect pretty easy.”
Aside from the leadership question, the Lazar addition is a major one for Canada after the Vancouver Canucks decided not to release Bo Horvat.
“It’s huge, just huge,” Reinhart said. “We were excited as soon as we heard the news. The presence of a guy like that is big.”
The pressure on Team Canada in this tournament will be enormous enough with the games on home soil. Add to it the presence of McDavid, the New Year’s Eve showdown with Jack Eichel-led Team USA in Montreal and the fact that Canada has not won a gold medal since 2009, and this is a win-or-bust proposition that the eyes of an entire nation are focused upon.
It’s been a long drought for Canada since the ’09 unit won gold in Ottawa with a roster that included Sabres Tyler Myers, Tyler Ennis and Cody Hodgson and big names such as John Tavares, P.K. Subban, Evander Kane, Jordan Eberle and Alex Pietrangelo.
From the how-far-the-mighty-have fallen department is this nugget: That tourney’s leading scorer was Hodgson, with 16 points in six games.
“I don’t think if we had won this tournament five years in a row that we would want to win this one any less, to be honest,” Reinhart said. “That motivation is there for us regardless of what has or hasn’t happened in the past. It is what it is in terms of the lack of success we’ve had in the past. We’re definitely motivated to change that.”