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Avs Proud To Answer Canada's Call

When it comes to representing their country, it's hard to say no

by Ryan Boulding @rboulding / ColoradoAvalanche.com

Everyone has different reasons for answering the call from Hockey Canada when the phone starts to ring, but one uniting attribute resounds through all of those that don the maple leaf on the international stage.

A sense of pride.

Canadian hockey players are proud to represent their country, whether it be at the Spengler Cup, the World Championship or the Winter Olympics, and it's no different for members of the Colorado Avalanche.

Sure, they grow up fantasizing about making it to the NHL, the top tier of the sport, and of all the fame and glory and fun and intensity that comes with it, but there's an additional desire that goes hand in hand with that fantasy.

"As a kid, you dream about playing in the NHL, and then you hope that if you make it there, you're in that pool of players that gets a chance to play for your country," Avs center Matt Duchene said as he prepared to fly out to Paris, France, to compete at the 2017 IIHF World Championship. "It's always an honor.

"Any time you get a call from Canada, you want to go. You want to pull on the jersey and compete for your country, and Hockey Canada has treated me so well over the years. I've been on so many other different teams in the past five, six years, that I feel a big attachment to them."

What starts as a desire to play for Team Canada quickly evolves into understanding the honor that comes with the situation. 

"It's always a privilege to play for team Canada, to put on that jersey," goaltender Calvin Pickard admitted. "I've had the opportunity to play for my country in the past, and it's unbelievable, a great feeling. Especially winning, that's the best part of it. Everybody is going to be watching back home, and you want to bring home a gold medal." 

The legacy of those wearing the red and white spans back through history and drives the desire to be the best nation in the world at the sport it created. Canada has won nine gold medals at the Winter Olympics and 26 at the World Championship, among other accolades, and remaining the top squad is a priority that every player on the roster is aware of.

"It's a great hockey country, and the last two World Championships have resulted in gold medals," said Pickard. "That's definitely the goal for our team, and that's definitely what we're going for."

Yet sometimes the decision to continue skating at the conclusion of the NHL season is harder than one might expect. Despite the pride and the honor, playing at the World Championship means that the previous season ended too early, leaving a sour taste in the mouths of those competitors.

"Obviously, whoever is going has had a disappointing season, whether you lose in the first round or you don't make the playoffs," said forward Nathan MacKinnon. "You want to keep going for another three, four weeks."

For Duchene, a regular on Team Canada's lineup, the negative experience of the 2016-17 campaign almost kept him out of this year's tournament.

"The last two years, I didn't think anything else. I was going no matter what. This year, I was on the fence a little bit," Duchene said. "This year took a big toll on me and I know a lot of other guys in this room. I contemplated whether I needed a break from hockey or not, and I just decided that if I could finish the year playing at that high of a level with those guys, I'd feel a lot better going into the summer.

"Hockey Canada has been a saving grace in my career in terms of the experiences I've had. If I didn't have those experiences, it would be tough to reflect on what I've gone through in my career so far. This will be my sixth Worlds, and it's kind of crazy it's been that many. We've won the last two and are looking for No. 3. This is the most important hockey we will have played since probably mid-December. So I'm excited." 

The need for finishing the hockey season on a high note, the hunger for something positive and fun before the skates are put away for the summer was enough to bring Duchene back for more.

It also beats the alternative.

"As far as offseason training, if you get three months in you're good. You don't need more than that," Duchene said. "So I probably would have gotten antsy and started working out too early, and I would have burned myself by August. That's just the way I am. I push harder than I should sometimes, and this gives me an opportunity to go play more hockey. You also train your body to play into the spring, for when you do make the playoffs and hopefully have a playoff push at some point. That's kind of the mentality for me." 

Yet, the element of fun is something that not only appeals to those looking forward to an international event, but also perhaps plays a key factor in why the Canadians are so dominant on the world stage.

"Getting with the new group of guys, it's a lot of fun. It's going to be fun to play on a good team and chase that gold medal," Pickard said. "I had the opportunity last year to go as well, and that winning feeling is a lot of fun. So it's definitely an exciting time to get over to Europe and get things started." 

"I've been fortunate enough to play in a lot of Team Canada events growing up, at different ages, and obviously this is always fun," added MacKinnon. "It's good to meet guys around the league and play with them and obviously play some good hockey to finish out the year and head into the summer.

"I think it's fun seeing who your linemates are, and getting to know guys and play with different players is always good. It's been a tough year for us, so it's always fun to play with some of the top players in the country."

These super squads present a lot of possibilities for the players, as the level of skill is so high and so encompassing that there is no limit to what they might accomplish. The game is refreshed. 

"It's fun. It's easy. It's easier to play," Duchene said of a roster stacked with such talent. "Guys are where they're supposed to be, all the time. When you're open, the puck is on your stick. It's always fun to play at that high of a level. It's going to be refreshing after a tough year like this one, where we as a group had to grind for every little thing we got, and and individually you had to grind for every little thing you got. It will be nice to go over there and hopefully have some success as a team and hopefully repeat for the third time in a row." 

Preparing for an event like the 2017 World Championship isn't all rainbows and sunshine, however. The impetus to be ready and in shape is on the players, and until they arrive at the competition, training occurs on their own time.

"The preparation is tough. We're skating, trying to keep in shape, and that's something I've done three years in a row and it sucks," said Duchene. "You have to push yourself. It's not in a team setting. As soon as we get over there and we get together as a group it's game on, and it will be a lot of fun."

"It's good. We do a lot of skills stuff," MacKinnon said about the informal sessions. "During the season, it's more systems and battles. We're just working on our hands, shots. Obviously, you get some cardio in as well. So it's fun."

Pickard, Duchene, MacKinnon and defenseman Tyson Barrie aren't the only members of the Avs organization representing their home nation. Gabriel Landeskog and Carl Soderberg are on Team Sweden, Mikko Rantanen is with the Finns. J.T. Compher is on Team USA and defensive prospect Andrei Mironov is with the Russians.

Although the opportunity for trash talking or making wagers on who will beat who is there, these teammates-turned-temporary-foes still stick together.

"Not much smack talk going on," said Pickard of communicating with the other Colorado skaters. "We've been talking a bit. We talk about that stuff, but they're in different pools. We might meet up with them later in the tournament, but we're just sticking with our guys and talking about going over there, and we're really excited. 

"It's different. Going over there, it's a different game. You're with a different team, and it's bigger ice. So there's definitely a couple obstacles that are a little bit different than the NHL, but you adapt quickly. That's what the pre-tournament is for. You get a four-, five-day period to get acclimated."

With that out of the way, the focus is on having fun and bringing home the coveted gold for the third consecutive year.

"I want to win again. I'm excited at the chance to go do a three-peat. Hopefully we can do that," said Duchene. "There are some really good teams in this tournament, so it's never easy, and you always face adversity at one point or another. But I'm excited for that, and I'm just excited to play with the group of players that we have. It's going to be fun to play with some of those guys and just have some fun playing the game."

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