OTHER FEATURE ARTICLES: Eberle
PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC -
As a teenager, Taylor Hall's season ended with a championship three years in a row, winning the IIHF U18 World Championship in 2008 and then the Memorial Cup in 2009 and 2010 with the Windsor Spitfires. It's been a long five years since then, but that made his victory with Team Canada in the gold medal game - a 6-1 decision against Russia - at the 2015 IIHF World Championship in Czech Republic that much sweeter.
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"It feels really good to be a champion," said the 23-year-old beaming with pride as he glanced down at the gold medal draped around his neck.
It's been a tough year for Hall. First, he was sidelined in November with a knee injury and, when he returned to the line-up, he struggled to get his game back. Then, in February, he was out six weeks with a cracked ankle.
In total, he only played 53 games this season. That's the fewest he's played since he was 15 and playing in the Ontario Minor Hockey Association. So, when Hockey Canada offered him the opportunity to extend his season and go after a world championship, he jumped at the opportunity.
"They asked and I said yes," Hall explained. "It wasn't even a question. Having the chance to come here and wear this jersey is an honour and I take a lot of pride in it."
If you ask Jordan Eberle, his Edmonton Oilers teammate, linemate and, at times, roommate, he can see the extra pep in Hall's step.
"Anytime you miss a lot of time, you're anxious and you have that itch to get in and play and he definitely has that and it's fun to watch. He's a guy that's very passionate about the game and he loves to play. Any time the season ends early and you're kind of pissed off, you want to take this opportunity to come over here and play your best and hopefully win a medal," Eberle said. "It's been fun winning, We're enjoying this."
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Winning hasn't been a given for the Canadians at this event in recent years. They hadn't won it since 2007 and hadn't made it past the quarterfinal, much less to the gold medal game since 2009. This fact wasn't lost on the players as they saw the potential they had here for success. They wanted to be the team that changed all that and set out on a mission.
"We have a lot of skill and on paper this is probably one of the best teams we've had at this tournament in a long time," said Hall. "It'd be easy to just rely on our skill but you have to be willing to work hard too. We did that and we won. How we were able to come together and play our roles within the team concept…..It was amazing to be a part of."
Yes, it's true. They could have relied on just their skill. As the most offensive team in the tournament, Canada scored 66 goals in 10 games. That's 26 more than any other team. In fact, there were 11 teams that didn't even score 26 goals, period. Hall was responsible for seven of those goals along with five assists for 12 points and earned a spot on the Tournament's All Star Team as selected by the media.
But they didn't just rely on their skill. They also worked hard defensively as shown by the their 95% effective penalty kill and allowing an average of 21 shots on goal per game, including just 12 in the gold medal game.
"We had a really good identity as a team and working together to achieve a common goal. We had a ton of skill, but we worked really hard too and it was fun to watch, let alone play in," said Hall.
Hall's skill was on display shift after shift and, as Eberle explains, the bigger ice surface helped showcase it.
"His best asset is his speed," he said about Hall. "I think any time you put him on the big ice, it probably shows a little bit more than in Canada. He's played well. He's just able to explode away from guys and create chances that way. He's got a lot of confidence right now. You just have to get him the puck and he's putting it in in the net."
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For Hall this was an opportunity to win, but it was also an opportunity to learn, especially on a line with Sidney Crosby.
"Sid's such a fast player and he makes plays at high speeds so he forces his linemates to play at that level," he explained. "When you come over here you see the way certain players play and you see how they take care of themselves and prepare - guys who have been in the playoffs and Stanley Cup Finals and the Olympics - you see the little things they do in key situations that make a big difference.
"These tournaments do nothing but good things for us as players from learning how to be a better leader or what other systems coaches are using or what other players are doing to prepare that you might be able to use yourself. I think that's been the biggest thing just seeing how other people go about their business."
Hall was also able to learn from the coaching staff, especially head coach Todd McLellan.
"The coaches did such a good job getting us adjusted to the big ice. That was a huge thing coming over here. It's a totally different game," he explained. "We watched a lot of video on San Jose because of Todd and they're such a good offensive team and I think it's been great for me to learn from. My style of play fit right into what he was asking us to do and he helped me to do it better.
"It's been a tumultuous last four or five years for myself and for my club team, so to come here and excel and find success and be able to contribute is a lot of fun," Hall said. "Playing with Ebs and Sid was a joy and to learn from this coaching staff and learn from all these players has been a lot of fun. It feels great to win and it feels even better to be a champion."