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Team Canada has plenty of under-24 talent

Wednesday, 08.26.2009 / 1:52 PM / All-Access Vancouver

By Dan Rosen - NHL.com Senior Writer

"Every guy has to think they have an equal chance to make the team regardless of your age. It's pretty awesome to come this far. To be at this camp, it's almost surreal at times. Again, though, it's just about going out there and playing. If you throw sticks on the ice, it's every guy for himself at a camp like this."
-- Jonathan Toews

CALGARY -- As hard as it might be to comprehend in this country, Jonathan Toews, at 21 years and nearly four months of age, is actually the fifth youngest of the 45 players that remain here at Canada's National Men's Team Orientation Camp.

Steve Mason was born a month after Toews. Milan Lucic was born nine days after Mason. Linda Staal didn't give birth to son Jordan until three months later. Drew Doughty just turned 20 this month.

They were atoms or novices when NHL players first played in the Olympics nearly 12 years ago; peewees or bantams when the Canadians won gold in Salt Lake, and playing NCAA or major junior hockey during the Torino disaster of 2006.

Now, they have a chance to play for their country in their country at the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver, and they're not the only kids at play here in Calgary.

Eighteen players that hit the Pengrowth Saddledome ice Wednesday are 24 or younger, including seven who haven't even celebrated their 23rd birthdays yet. Ten of them were part of the 2003 Entry Draft class.

By comparison, four years ago in Kelowna, where Hockey Canada held the orientation camp prior to the 2006 Games, only three of the invitees were 24 or younger and all were of legal drinking age in the United States (not that it really mattered).

Team USA GM Brian Burke likes to talk about how the Americans will be the youngest team in Vancouver next year, but Hockey Canada's youth movement has been front and center all week. The fresh young faces are everywhere.

"Every guy has to think they have an equal chance to make the team regardless of your age," Toews, the Chicago Blackhawks captain, told NHL.com. "It's pretty awesome to come this far. To be at this camp, it's almost surreal at times. Again, though, it's just about going out there and playing. If you throw sticks on the ice, it's every guy for himself at a camp like this."

Team Canada coach Mike Babcock and Executive Director Steve Yzerman have made it clear that they don't want or expect to bring a team of kids to Vancouver five and a half months from now.

"Veteran leadership goes a long way," Babcock said Tuesday. "We don't want kiddie corps here."

They might not have much of a choice. The young players vying for roster spots may prove to be too hard to ignore come decision time in late December.

At least Eric Staal, 24, Mike Richards, 24, Sidney Crosby, 22, and Toews may already be locks. Marc-Andre Fleury, 24, is the favorite to challenge Martin Brodeur and Roberto Luongo. Shea Weber and Jeff Carter, both 24, are getting rave reviews and lots of attention. Mike Green, 23, will make it if he improves his play below the blue line. 

Lucic, 21, may be the most intriguing wildcard here. Yzerman and Babcock will have to figure out if his formidable blend of ferocious physicality and scoring touch will be necessary against the Russians, Finns, Swedes, Americans and Czechs.

"Just doing what I do has got me here," Lucic said Tuesday. "I feel that has caught Steve Yzerman's eye and that I deserve to be here. When I got the call I felt real good about myself and after two skates here I feel more and more that I deserve to be here."

That's part of the beauty of this camp and why it's so important to the young guys.

If any of them were wondering, "Do I belong here among former Olympians like Brodeur, Luongo, Scott Niedermayer, Chris Pronger, Vinny Lecavalier, Ryan Smyth and Jarome Iginla?" getting on the ice with them this week has given them the confidence that they are, in fact, not at all out of place.

Some are even controlling the pace in practice, forcing the older guys to keep up.
"I think they all think they're pretty close to being the best player and that's why they're here," Babcock said. "I could be wrong, but to be at this level and at the top of your game like most of these guys are, they're pretty confident people. If you take a backseat at this camp to someone you're going to be separated quickly and I don't see that happening."

Anybody looking into a crystal ball a few years back could have predicted the young turnout at this camp.

Canada has captured five straight World Junior Championships and among youngsters here they hold a combined 14 gold medals. Five of them also played for Canada's gold-medal winning entry into the 2007 World Championship.

Six have won the Stanley Cup. Crosby is a Hart Trophy winner. Mason took home the Calder a few months ago when Green was a Norris Trophy finalist and Richards a finalist for the Selke Trophy. Toews was a finalist for the Calder in 2008.

Four of them also won the Memorial Cup.

"Our age may be young, but we have a lot of experience," Mason said. "This camp is a good opportunity to get your foot in the door and make a good impression."

They've already done that. Now it's up to Yzerman and Babcock to figure out how many kids they really want to take to Vancouver.

The number may be higher than they want to admit right now.

"We're not trying to step on any toes," Green said. "We just want to be part of it."

Contact Dan Rosen at drosen@nhl.com