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Senators prospects chasing world junior dream

by Rob Brodie / Ottawa Senators
Brandon Wheat Kings forward Mark Stone is headed to Edmonton next week for Hockey Canada's national junior team evaluation camp along with fellow Senators prospect Matt Puempel of the Peterborough Petes. It's step one on the road to the 2012 IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship, to be played in Calgary and Edmonton (Photo courtesy of Brandon Wheat Kings).

For so many years now, it's been a treasured holiday tradition for Canadians from coast to coast.

And nobody, to be sure, appreciates it more than the lucky teenagers who get to don the red maple leaf at the world junior hockey championship. In a lot of ways, it's the best Christmas gift any of them could receive.

Many of the National Hockey League's finest talents have brought golden glory to Canada on the world junior stage over the years. Recent Stanley Cup-winning captains Sidney Crosby (Pittsburgh) and Jonathan Toews (Chicago), to name two, celebrated such a moment along the road to hoisting the most hallowed chalice of them all with their current NHL teams.

No wonder, then, that a pair of Ottawa Senators prospects speak with enthusiasm about the opportunity they now have to join that exclusive group of champions. Forwards Matt Puempel and Mark Stone are among 46 players who will be on hand next week in Edmonton and Fort McMurray, Alta., for Hockey Canada's summer evaluation camp in advance of the 2012 world juniors.

"That’s something that’s definitely been circled on my calendar," said Puempel, 18, a first-round pick by the Senators (24th overall) in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft. "It’s so huge around Canada … it is world junior time, not just Christmas time. That’s how Canada sees it and it’s in Canada this year. I’m going to do whatever I can in order to make that team. I’m going to learn a lot of things when I go out there and I’m going to try to enjoy it as much as possible."

Stone, who enjoyed a breakout season with the Brandon Wheat Kings in 2010-11 — he racked up 37 goals and 106 points to rank third in the Western Hockey League — also has his eyes clearly pointed toward a big opportunity in his burgeoning career.

"I've never made a Hockey Canada (team), so this is going to be huge and I'm going to learn a lot, going there to compete with 46 of the top guys in Canada," said the 19-year-old Winnipeg native, a Senators sixth-round pick (178th overall) in the 2010 draft. "I'm thrilled to go to that and I can't wait to get it going."

The summer camp is the first step on the way to the 2012 world juniors, set to be played Dec. 26-Jan. 5 in Calgary and Edmonton. A final selection camp will be held in early December, with 22 players eventually chosen and tasked with bringing the gold back to Canada after silver-medal finishes in the last two world junior tournaments.

Among the group invited to the summer camp, which runs Aug. 3-7, are seven returnees from the team that fell to Russia 5-3 at the 2011 world juniors in Buffalo. The camp concludes with a pair of Red and White scrimmages Aug. 6 in Edmonton and Aug. 7 in Fort McMurray.

"We are looking forward to a competitive, high-energy camp in Edmonton," said Kevin Prendergast, Hockey Canada's head scout for the men's Program of Excellence, who will continue to monitor players during their junior seasons leading up to the final selection camp.

Both Puempel and Stone are aware of the importance the world juniors have in the eyes of Canadians, who watched their favourites put together a string of five straight gold medals before dropping to the silver-medal position in the last two tournaments.

"The last couple of years haven’t been the greatest ones for the Canada side," said Puempel, who's put together back-to-back 30-goal seasons for the Ontario Hockey League's Peterborough Petes. "A few buddies played on the team last year and watching them was nice. I’ve watched it as long as I can remember. I don’t think there ever was a time (when I didn’t). I know Canada won it a few years in a row there and that was definitely special."

Added Stone: "It's great when it's in Canada. We have great fans ... it's a huge deal in Canada.

 Everyone watches at Christmas time and it's a big part of everyone's lives. To be a part of that would be so special for me and my family, but I've got a long way to go and I still have to prove myself more than I have (so far)."

Puempel underwent season-ending hip surgery in March and was held out of contact scrimmages during the Senators' annual development camp earlier this month. But he expects to have no issues in that area next week. He knows first impressions can go a long way in a situation like this, when there's so much talent on display.

"I didn’t really realize, until I was invited to the camp, how big it is," said Puempel, a native of Essex, Ont. "I remember (when I was younger) going to a few Spitfires games in Windsor — I got tickets for Christmas — and you notice the big names like Steve Ott and some other guys aren’t there because they’re at the world juniors. It’s a time when everybody in Canada comes together.

"It’s so big for me to go there and it’s such a huge accomplishment to even be looked at for this camp. (Making the team) would be huge. I’d be so excited. I think it would also be huge from a development standpoint but to compete for Canada at that tournament is something that I really, really want to be a part of."

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