It's not easy taking a bunch of teenagers on their summer vacations to an international hockey tournament and coming home with spectacular results, but that's just what Hockey Canada did in winning the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament for a third straight year.
George Burnett of the Belleville Bulls guided this year's team to a gold medal, beating the U.S. 1-0 in a tightly contested championship game in Piestany, Slovakia.
"I think it's a lot to ask kids to play on the world stage at such a high level in early August," Burnett told NHL.com. "But having a competitive (pre-tournament) camp in Calgary for four days was a big part of our success. They had to earn their way on this team. Nobody was going to make it based on past performances or last year's accolades. They had to come to camp and solidify their position."
In five games, they earned more than their positions -- they earned gold medals by a combined score of 26-9.
Those 26 goals came from 13 different players, topped by the five scored by Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. He had a hat trick against Switzerland in round-robin play, then scored the only goal of the gold-medal game just 1:42 in.
The Red Deer Rebels center is only 5-11 1/2 and 155 pounds, but was among the WHL rookie leaders last season with 24 goals and 65 points in 67 games.
"Ryan Nugent-Hopkins should be among the elite players for next year's NHL draft," Burnett said. "A young man with tremendous skills and speed and vision and willingness to battle and pay the price. Just a treat to work with.
"Everybody that was there, and it's mostly NHL people that are there, I think everybody got a real glimpse of how special this young man is, how determined and team-oriented a player he is. I know he's worked hard on his strength and getting to a position where he can handle the pace and physicality of the game. It would be a lot of fun to have him in your lineup, and I'm just glad I don't have to face him in the OHL."
One player Burnett will have to face this season is Peterborough Petes forward Matthew Puempel, who led all OHL rookies with 33 goals and 64 points last season and was named CHL Rookie of the Year. At the Hlinka tournament, he had 3 goals and tied Nugent-Hopkins for the scoring lead with 7 points -- despite playing just one shift in the final game due to a back injury. Burnett said he was most impressed by Puempel's work on a de facto checking line with Oshawa's Lucas Lessio and Victoriaville's Philip Danault.
"They were big in not giving up goals against," Burnett said of the line, "and Lessio (3 goals, 5 points) and Puempel scored big goals in the tournament."
Burnett said as nice as the offense was, he was more impressed by his team's defense.
"I think the strength of our group was the blue line, for sure," Burnett said. "The depth and size of those individuals was the big difference we had on the other teams. When we had the matchups we wanted we were good, but the guys who were (Nos.) five, six or seven on our depth chart could get the job done against elite players."
The seven defensemen -- Myles Bell (Regina), Ryan Murray (Everett), Scott Harrington (London), Duncan Siemens (Saskatoon), Xavier Ouellet (Montreal), Stuart Percy (Mississauga St. Michael's) and Dougie Hamilton (Niagara) -- averaged 6-foot-1 and 193 pounds, topped by Hamilton's 6-4 1/2, 187.
Hamilton and Siemens had a goal and a pair of assists each, but the most impressive performance might have been the one turned in by Murray, who was named captain despite being the youngest player on the team -- he's the only player who won't be draft-eligible until 2012.
"He spent 10 days flat on his back with strep throat, and he played some tremendous hockey despite being 60-, 65-percent full health," Burnett said. "I thought his best game was against the U.S. He was our captain, and he was named captain for a reason."
The last lines of defense were goalies Tyson Teichmann and Robin Gusse. Teichmann started four of the five games and allowed just eight goals on 103 shots. He stopped all 22 shots he faced in a 1-0 win against the U.S. in the championship game.
Teichmann plays for Burnett in Belleville, but the coach was quick to point out that Teichmann earned his spot at the pre-tournament training camp in Calgary.
"Ty had a great three scrimmages and was in the driver's seat when camp broke," Burnett said. "Knowing him didn't hurt us, but he solidified his place."
Gusse, who plays for Chicoutimi in the QMJHL, stopped 25 of 26 shots in his one game, a 6-1 win against Slovakia in the final of the round-robin portion of the tournament. It wasn't the number of shots that either goalie faced, it's how and when they stopped them that mattered.
"There wasn't a lot of action, but both guys made big saves at critical times," Burnett said. "We were up 4-1 on the Slovaks at one time and (Gusse) had a couple big (penalty) kills. We were down 3-1 to the Swedes, battled back up 4-3 in the second, had a big two-man (power play) against and he (Teichmann) had a couple big saves.
"It was a nice tandem and I think our group had confidence in both guys."
That confidence was rewarded with a gold medal, and what should be a positive start to their respective junior seasons.
And how did you spend your summer?
Contact Adam Kimelman at firstname.lastname@example.org