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GOLD-MEDAL HUNT

By George Johnson - CalgaryFlames.com

Often, when coach Tim Hunter has occasion to haul out the reliable ol' white board for visual explanation, his thoughts drift back to a long-ago, influential mentor.

"When I was with Badger Bob (Johnson)," the former Flames' co-captain, now in the final countdown to his first crack in charge of Canada's entry at the World Junior Hockey Championships, is reminiscing, "I was just a young guy.

"Impressionable. Ready to learn. Open to new ideas, new ways, and Badger, of course, had plenty of 'em.

"One morning, I'll never forget, he's up at the white board in the locker-room in Calgary and has the grease pen in his hand. He's rubbing his nose, the way he always did, saying: 'OK, boys. OK. We're playing the Oilers tonight. Gretzky. Coffey. Kurri. So we're looking for the edge tonight. How are we going to beat this team? What's the edge?'

"He keeps talking about the edge. The edge. The edge. Finally, he puts the marker on the white board and says: 'Someone come up here and tell me where the edge is!'

"So John Tonelli gets up out of his seat - Johnny had played for Al Arbour, of course, an old-school guy, commanding, hugely successful, all those Stanley Cups - takes the pen and draws a tiny little arrow to the edge of the white board and says: 'Why, coach, the edge is right there.'

"And then Badger's going: 'No, no, NO, Johnny … that's not it …'

"Well, we're all laughing. Then he's laughing, too, and he says: 'You guys are beautiful.'"

Coaches, the good ones, leave the players in their charge with memories.

Tim Hunter's a good one.

So he plans on helping leave a group of eager young patriots with a golden memory at this year's tournament.

Having spent the past two World Juniors as part of Dominque Ducharme's staff, he's been promoted as Canada heads off in search of title No. 18.

It's Hunter's show now.

Currently in his fifth season piloting the WHL's Moose Jaw Warriors, he's also prepped for this assignment via NHL assistant-coaching stints in Washington, San Jose and Toronto.

"Having and implementing my plan, paying attention to all the details of the day-to-day operation, is certainly different," Hunter acknowledges. "I'm not just running the defence or the penalty-kill now.

"There's a full system technical package that we go through and I have to administer that. Then it's my job to set the tone for the way I want our team to perform."

Over 545 games modelling the No. 19 for his hometown NHL team, of course, this man never backed down from a scrap.

Whether it be Don Jackson or Chris Nilan. Nick Fotiu or Marty McSorley or Dave Brown.

Regardless of size.

Irrespective of reputation.

He fully understands the Swedes and Americans, Finns and Russians aren't going down without a helluva fight, either.

And as for the geographical expectation of Canada having home sheet, being defending champ and fully understanding the eyes of an obsessed nation are fixated on their every waking moment over 11 days?

Bring it on.

 

"Relentless,'' says Hunter. "That's how we want to be.

"Everywhere on the ice.

"Looking for speed in everything we do, our pursuit to be the fastest team possible and the toughest team possible to play against.

"Expectations, pressure … I don't look at this in that way. I look at this purely as an opportunity."

The Canucks open defence of their WJC title on Boxing Day, naturally, against the Danes at Vancouver's Rogers Arena.

The second venue for the 2019 tournament is the 7,000-seat Save-On-Foods Memorial Centre in Victoria.

During his previous two years as part of the World Junior project, Hunter's experienced the gamut: A gutting gold-medal shootout loss to the U.S. at Toronto's Air Canada Center in 2017 followed last January by a title-claiming turn against the Swedes inside Buffalo's KeyBank Arena.

"From going to the final and losing in the way a hockey championship should never end - a shootout - then to have it happen for us a year later … well, it was an unbelievable feeling because there were a lot of the same people involved, a number of returning players, and the staff," he says.

"Our goal last year was to make sure we didn't put ourselves in that position again, a shootout. Those were our intentions and it worked out."

A year ago in Buffalo, Hunter didn't feel entirely secure until Alex Formenton hit an empty Swedish net to up Canada's lead to 3-1 late on.

"I mean, it was all special," he explains. "Going on the ice afterwards, the anthem … all of it. But when we knew we'd closed it out, then when the buzzer went … just the finality of knowing we'd accomplished what we'd set out out to do, hugging the coaches and players.

"That moment. Knowing. That's what I'll never forget.

"This year, we're gonna relish being in Canada, with all our fans cheering us on. We lost a gold medal on home ice two years ago in Toronto/Montreal, and it hurt. Hurt bad.

"But last year in Buffalo, we were basically at home because 90 percent of the fans were Canadian fans. When our kids went out for warm-up and they saw the number of red jerseys, the flags waving, the signs and Hockey Canada logos in the stands, they were just over-the-moon excited.

"We're going to tap into that emotion, embrace it, and our guys won't be afraid to play under those bright lights. They all grew up wanting to be in that situation and now they're going to have the opportunity."

Among Hunter's coaching influences, two men pop immediately to mind.

"Badger and Pat Quinn were my two favourites. Both very different from the norm. Obviously Crispie was great; we won the Stanley Cup with Crispie.

"But those guys I mentioned were a special in the way they approached things. Bob was the ultimate positive-reinforcement coach. I can't remember how many times he'd say to me: 'Tim, you're a smart guy. There's a better way of doing things.' Instead of demeaning someone to get a point across.

"He always, always, lifted you up.

"Every day was a great day for hockey with Bob, right? And he lived that; arrived each and every day ready to roll.

"Pat was a real student of the game. He loved all sorts of hockey. So did Badger. They both loved the international game. When I became a coach, Pat would talk with such passion about his experiences at World Juniors and the Olympics. His philosophy was to give the players the opportunity to lead each other. Treat them like men and you'll get good service in return.

"That's my philosophy, as well."

One of the best pieces of coaching advice Hunter ever received came from future Jack Adams Trophy winner Bob Murdoch when he was transitioning from the Flames' blueline to the bench, beside Johnson, back in the early '80s.

"I asked Bob: 'What are you going to use from your playing days now that you're a coach?' And he told me the No.-1 thing he intended to do was separate the player from the person. Just because someone has a bad game doesn't mean he's a bad person.

"He was so right.

"We all make mistakes.

"You can never forget that."

All the experiences, on the ice and behind the bench, the years of listening and implementing and taking crib notes, over a lifetime spent in the game, will be funnelled into the these upcoming days, to once again fulfil Canada's holiday hockey obsession.

"As a coach," says the old tough guy, "this is what you want. You want the chance to have success. You want the chance to be involved in big moments.

"Well, this is a big moment.

"Every coach strives for this sort of opportunity.

"I believe I'm ready for it."

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