It's hard to imagine the 47 skaters at Team Canada's National Junior Development Camp playing with more vigor, but that's exactly what Goaltending Consultant Ron Tugnutt expects when the puck drops Saturday night at Rexall Place.
Fans were entertained when Teams Red and White skated in an early evening scrimmage Thursday, but one team's dominance over the other merely set a precursor to the weekend's main event.
"It will be a better game on Saturday," Tugnutt said. "I think the practices have gotten a little more physical and we (the coaches) have made it clear that we want it to be more physical and more intense."
Amid bone-crushing physical play, unwavering speed and fiery competition between colours, Team Red emerged victorious. Each period began with a 0-0 score, but Red amassed leads of 2-1, 3-1 and 3-0 throughout the night.
The energetic pace was entertaining, but a collision midway through the scrimmage's third period silenced the rink. Tampa Bay prospect Brett Connolly crashed into the end boards behind Tyler Bunz
, concerning fans and Lightning personnel in attendance. Connolly stayed down for several minutes before he was ushered to the locker room by worried teammates.
Connolly missed Friday's session and is uncertain for Saturday's match, but the mishap was a strong indication of how hard these players are willing to push, even in the summer months when most are recouping for next season.
"You never want to see that happen to anybody, but that's part of the game," Tugnutt explained. "Brett appears to be okay and we're happy about that. It really speaks volumes about his compete level when you see him ready to come back the very next day. We want to make sure everyone leaves this camp in good shape."
It's a theme that Tugnutt and Head Coach Don Hay have been impressed with since camp opened earlier this week.
"The players are everything we thought they'd be. They're competitive and athletic guys that have tremendous personalities. We're going to be watching a lot of hockey over the next few months, because some tough decisions are going to have to be made. It all starts [Saturday] with this game.
"It will be a real game for sure," he added. "Thursday was more of a controlled scrimmage and we were wanting them to do certain things. It's not easy when you play the game that way. Sometimes it's better to just drop the puck and let them play. We'll see that and I'm sure it will be a great game."
Tugnutt, 43, has been retired from pro hockey for over seven years, but has served as Canada's goaltending consultant since July of 2009. Before then, he played parts of 17 seasons in NHL, making a stop in Edmonton to play 29 regular season games with the Oilers from 1991-93.
He also represented Team Canada at the World Hockey Championship on two separate occasions in 1993 and 1998. It didn't seem to matter where he was making waves; Tugnutt was a consummate pro, and he now has a career's worth of knowledge and experience to pass on.
"The World Junior Championship is as big as it gets," he said. "What I try to explain to the players is that when they play for Canada, they don't have the pressure of the world on them. Instead, they have the support of the world."
The line of support most certainly extends to the coaches, who aim to establish close bonds with each player.
"These people are here to support the players and they shouldn't feel pressure to have to perform for us. They should feel the support we have to give. They're not in this alone."
It's an important factor to consider, because this year's entry will be a new team with a new goal in mind. Six players have returned from last year's squad, but none are guaranteed to don the nation's red and white once again.
"Everyone's got to earn their stripes again," Tugnutt argued. "They've got to come here and prove it to those guys that they've never competed against. They're certainly not going to surprise them.
"Embrace it. Don't be scared."
All things considered, Tugnutt sees big things for this year's team. With nothing but a gold medal in mind, a win at home in such a hockey-mad market could provide everyone with incredible, everlasting memories.
"I was in Ottawa at the time when we had it there, and I expect it to be every bit as good as that was. Hockey here in Alberta is alive and well. I know Edmonton and Calgary will embrace the World Juniors and our Canadian team because of the pride they have in hockey and in our country.
"The players feel that energy, too. Trust me."Follow Ryan Dittrick on Twitter | @ryandittrick