Talk about extremes.
It wasn't that long ago people snickered when they talked about how the Toronto Maple Leafs weren't exactly well represented at the World Junior Hockey Championship.
Well that was then and this is now.
When the World Juniors open in Halifax and Sydney, N.S., on Boxing Day, the Leafs will have nine players playing for five counties competing for gold, including five on Team Canada.
| Colaiacovo highlights the Leafs' prospects on the Junior Nats. |
Graig Abel Photography
The five are Carlo Colaiacovo (17th overall in 2001), Matt Stajan (57th in 2002), centre Kyle Wellwood (134th in 2001), defencemen Brendan Bell (65th in 2001) and Ian White (191st in 2002). They tie the mark for most Leafs prospects set in 1984, when Russ Courtnall, Gary Leeman, Dan Hodgson, Ken Wregget and Allan Bester wore Canada's colors on the World Junior stage.
"They all, for some reason, were chosen, got there and went through the selection process and made it, and good luck to them," says Mike Penny, the Leafs' Assistant to the General Manager who also serves as the club's Director of Player Personnel. "They get an opportunity to put on a Canadian uniform and represent their country."
Rounding out the Leaf contingent are Alexander Steen of Sweden (24th overall in 2002), Maxim Kondratiev of Russia (168th overall in 2001), David Turon of the Czech Republic (122nd overall in 2002), and Ivan Kolozvary of Slovakia (183rd overall in 2001).
Canada opens the tournament against Sweden, which means right off the bat the five Leaf picks get to measure Steen, up close and personal.
Suffice is to say, the stakes are high in the tournament-opener for both teams. The Canadians do not want to start with a loss, and the Swedes do not want to get behind the eight ball right off the bat.
"It is a good test," says Penny. "There will be a few nerves on both sides and that is where you will get a good evaluation of guys who are playing."
The World Junior is best-on-best hockey in a pressure-cooker environment and for the players who wear their country's colours a trip to the World Juniors means so many new experiences. They're united with so many people they've never met before, or even had celebrated battles in league play.
Scouts recognize that the World Juniors is a high-involvement tournament. Teams are well organized and well coached.
Hockey is simply so much better when played by teams of fairly equal value and the games at the WJC will be quick and play will swing like pendulum. One minute a team will be on the attack and the next it will be in full retreat.
| Alex Steen will face his future teammates as a member of the Swedish team. |
What a scout can accomplish is evaluate not only where a player is at in comparison to the best teenagers in the world, but whether the player has character. The World Juniors is a character check and considering the stakes, players need to rise to the occasion. If a player rises above the pack and stands out it is a good indication of his character.
"It is a speed and skill game and it has nothing to do with beating anybody up. This is speed and skill and talent and pressure, too," says Penny about the quality of the 10-team tournament. "You have to have guys who will not pack their bag on you and you don't need guys hanging their heads between their legs feeling sorry for themselves. They have to pick themselves up and keep right on going in tough games."
But Penny has been around hockey long enough to know that the list of players who played in the world junior and who have not gone on to play in the NHL is very long. He also knows that a bad tournament by any of the nine Leaf prospects does not necessarily mean the Leafs have drafted poorly.
"You like to see them compete. The most disappointing thing would be a lackluster effort, floating through it," says Penny about what he'll be looking for. "And if they compete and they give themselves a chance, their skill level will shine through."
Scouting isn't an exact science and the fact that Toronto has nine players in one of the top tournaments in the world speaks well to the scouting staff of Garth Malarchuk, George Armstrong, Bob Johnson, Jan Kovac, Thommie Bergman, Murray Oliver, Mike Palmateer and Mark Yannetti. Director of scouting Barry Trapp joined the Leafs in July and was part of the process which led to the drafting of Steen.
"There are the guys who did the legwork and said, 'Come and see this guy. You have to see him,' " says Penny.
The Leafs also have another person on Team Canada's roster and that's Paul Dennis, the player development coach and scouting coordinator. He's working as a sports psychologist with the Canadian juniors.
Over the last year, Dennis has worked closely with the five Leaf picks from Canada. He set up a training program for them, and held a summer camp for the Leaf draft picks.
"I can see the results," says Penny. "He has done a good job with these kids in conditioning and nutrition. He really puts a lot into his work."
The World Juniors has always fueled passions in Canada, perhaps more than anywhere in the world. Hockey is our game, or used to be, and it sears the national ego when we don't mine gold. Hockey is a touchstone of Canadian life. Hockey is more than a sport for Canadians; it is part of the country's soul.
The World Juniors definitely has its place in the Canadian hockey psyche. The tournament is a major event on the international sports calendar and it has become as much a Christmas tradition as turkey dinner with all the stuffings. In this country part of the Christmas tradition includes watching the World Juniors.