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WJC drought over, Canada aims to maintain success

by Aaron Vickers / NHL.com

CALGARY -- Canada's gold-medal drought at the IIHF World Junior Championship ended in 2015, and the focus has shifted to a gold rush.

That process is off to a good start, according to Hockey Canada vice president of hockey operations and national teams Scott Salmond.

"I think for five years we've kind of been chasing it," Salmond said. "I've seen the feeling in the room from the coaches, from the players. We know what it takes to win. I think we've done a real good job of building, not only World Juniors, but men's Worlds and back to (the) Sochi (Olympics) on the concept of the team we need to be to win and how we need to play. I think that's in the players' minds. To go in and defend instead of chasing, that's a different thing.

"It's tough when you have pressure and you're trying to get something back. When you have it, you want to keep it. It's a bit of a different feeling."

A weeklong retreat to Calgary in August attempted to lay the foundation for just that.

With 39 skaters in attendance at Canada's National Junior Evaluation Camp at WinSport's Markin MacPhail Centre at Canada Olympic Park from Aug. 1-6, the groundwork has started for Canada to defend its first gold-medal finish at World Juniors since 2009.

And coach Dave Lowry, who helped end Canada's slump as an assistant to Benoit Groulx this past January, doesn't see any glaring weaknesses in advance of the 2016 WJC in Helsinki, Finland, from Dec. 26, 2015, through Jan. 5, 2016.

At least not yet.

"I don't think right now we have any concerns," Lowry said. "I think our biggest concerns are some players that might start in the National Hockey League. That's always a concern this time of year. We know where the players want to be, and you want to see guys continue on in their career. In the same breath, you're hoping that they are available come Christmastime."

Canada's camp set out to prepare those who will be available.

It also helped the coaching staff learn what they might have.

"It's about the impressions that they leave," Lowry said. "For our staff, it's the first time we get to see some of these players firsthand. We start forming our opinions. The players know what the expectations are. I know there are guys in there hoping some guys are in the National Hockey League because it will open up opportunities for other guys.

"So be it."

As it stands, Canada has five players eligible to return to defend the 2015 gold: defenseman Joe Hicketts and forwards Brayden Point, Lawson Crouse, Jake Virtanen, and Robby Fabbri.

The camp served as a good re-introduction for Hicketts, who made a point to be welcoming to those who are new to the program.

"It was good," he said. "It was good to come in here, meet a lot of the new guys, lots of new faces coming in, but also seeing some returning guys and guys I've played against for a while and see them again. It was a high-paced camp. I'm looking forward to coming back in December if I get that chance."

Newcomer Mathew Barzal is looking for the same invite back as Hicketts. The first-round pick (No. 16) of the New York Islanders has plenty of experience representing Canada, but he's never done so at World Juniors.

He's hoping to change that.

"It's crazy to see some of the skill out here, to be competing against them and playing with them," Barzal said. "To put on the maple leaf at Christmastime would be such an honor. I've never been here before. I've never had this opportunity, but just watching, the whole country gets behind them. For something like that to happen would be crazy. Hopefully, I can represent with these guys."

The camp has helped bring him closer to realizing that dream, Barzal suggested.

So too did watching Hicketts and the rest of the returning core.

"Just to see those leaders, those guys who've already won gold medals, how they came in and they were leaders, they were the hardest-working guys," Barzal said. "To see that was really eye-opening. It was nice to see. The way the leadership group worked, it was good to see."

It's one of the many things Salmond hoped the 39 players in attendance would take away from the camp, but not the only thing.

"We want them to take away the message from our team, from our coaching staff, of how we need them to play," Salmond said. "We want them to take away, especially the games against the Russians, the pace of play you need to have, the level of intensity to be a world-class player and to be able to win.

"To get that baseline now, it's better to have it now than when you get to Finland. It's game on right away."

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