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Steve Stamkos steals a piece of the spotlight at Canadian junior camp

NHL.com @NHL

CALGARY - Steve Stamkos said at the outset of the Canadian junior hockey team's selection camp that he was prepared to fill his teammates' water bottles if it would get him on the team.

If the 17-year-old from Unionville, Ont., keeps up his current level of play, it won't be water-bottle duty that puts a Maple Leaf on his chest at the world junior championship.

Head coaches of Canada's junior teams are traditionally circumspect about singling out players while they're competing for a spot on the team, so Craig Hartsburg's endorsement of Stamkos was telling.

"He's been excellent," Hartsburg said Wednesday. "Great speed, great puck skills and very competitive."

So if Stamkos is not yet a certainty to play for Canada starting Dec. 26 in Pardubice, Czech Republic, the Sarnia Sting forward has at least extended his tenure at selection camp.

Hartsburg will release 13 players by Friday, when the team boards a plane for Europe. Cuts are expected to start Thursday morning.

The team lost a second forward at this camp to mononucleosis as forward Cory Emmerton of the Brampton Battalion was diagnosed with it Wednesday.

Emmerton, 19, played for Canada in the summer Super Series against Russia and had no points in seven games.

Nick Spaling of the Kitchener Rangers was sent home on the first day of camp Monday after doctors discovered he too had mononucleosis.

Stamkos is projected to be the No. 1 pick in the 2008 NHL draft, yet he arrived at selection camp in the shadow of the other 17-year-old invited. John Tavares, born five days too late for Stamkos's draft class, is touted to be the top pick in 2009.

"It's 'oh yeah, Steve Stamkos is here too' and I think he likes it that way," Hockey Canada head scout Al Murray said. "He's been pretty fortunate here because all the hype potential first overall picks get, he kind of gets to fly under the radar because everybody is talking to John Tavares."

Stamkos and Tavares are easy to locate on the ice as they are the only players wearing full cages. The International Ice Hockey Federation requires players under the age of 18 to wear them.

Everything about the six-foot, 183-pound Stamkos starts with his fleet feet, but his skill doesn't end there.

"It's something a little more than that," Murray explained. "So many players come over the line and gain space and then they slow down to make their plays. He makes passes or creates scoring passes for himself at high speed and that's really unusual.

"He's like those Bugs Bunny cartoons where he's everywhere. You look out and he's the first guy in on the forecheck and then you see the play coming back to your own zone and he's the first guy back to his own net to cover his check."

Stamkos is up against players 18 and 19 years old for a spot on the Canadian team, yet stood out in the first intrasquad game of camp with a goal, an assist and an end-to-end rush.

"If he didn't have the cage on, you wouldn't know how old he was," Hartsburg observed.

Stamkos has the fearlessness of youth on his side. This isn't his last chance to play for the Canadian junior team so he feels comfortable and loose.

"I wouldn't say I'm that nervous coming in as a 17-year-old," he said. "There's not much pressure.

"The guys are older, a lot bigger, stronger and faster and they're the best players from around Canada. It makes it a lot easier out there. Everyone knows where everyone is on the ice. They know how to play hockey, so it definitely makes it easier for me."

Few 17-year-olds, with the exception of Wayne Gretzky (1978) and Eric Lindros (1991), have been Canada's stars at the world junior tournament.

But in Canada's current run of three straight gold medals Sam Gagner (2007), Jonathan Toews (2006) and Sidney Crosby (2005) all contributed to their team's success.

"I think I can utilize my speed and be an aggressive forechecker and be effective on the penalty kill," Stamkos said. "If I have to be on the third or fourth line, or the 13th forward, that's fine with me.

"It's definitely worth it in the end."

Stamkos had 42 goals and 50 assists in 63 games last season as an Ontario Hockey League rookie and had 30 goals and 21 assists when he arrived at selection camp from Sarnia.

He's had considerable international seasoning this calendar year in both the world under-18 championship in April and the summer Ivan Hlinka Memorial in the Czech Republic, although Canada finished fourth in both.

"The gold medal is what Hockey Canada strives for all the time and anything less is a little disappointing," Stamkos said. "Hopefully I can break out of that slump and bring home a gold here if I get an opportunity to play for the team."

Stamkos was a four-sport athlete growing up as he won Ontario provincial titles in soccer, lacrosse, baseball and hockey between the age of nine and 14, before focusing his efforts on hockey.

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