On June 30, 2013 the Ottawa Senators made Curtis Lazar their first selection, 17th overall, at the 2013 Entry Draft. For 10 days beginning December 26, 2013, hockey fans everywhere quickly found out why the Sens were so excited to leave New Jersey with Lazar in the fold.
The bullet points have been out there for some time. A character player who was an alternate captain in just his second WHL season, a Team BC captain who broke scoring records held by Sidney Crosby and Steven Stamkos at the 2011 Canada Winter Games, a two-way game, gritty, heart, etc.
Sometimes, however, you have to see it to believe it.
While most dedicated Canadian hockey fans and observers are familiar with his Edmonton Oil Kings by name, opportunities to sit down and watch them play their Western Hockey League schedule are few and far between. That left the World Juniors — the single biggest stage available to major junior and collegiate hockey players — as his biggest opportunity to turn heads.
He didn't disappoint.
Despite the tournament ending in disappointing fashion for the fourth place Canadians who arrived in Sweden as favourites, the Salmon Arm, B.C., native earned unanimous praise for his performance from the likes of fans, pundits and Canadian head coach Brent Sutter.
"I was in his good books," said Lazar on Sutter. "We had a little conversation after the tournament. He was really happy with how I played all the way throughout and he thanked me."
While his play certainly left his NHL employers with pride in one of their newest prospects, it may not compare to the feeling Lazar was left with after representing his country.
"Any time you get to put on that Canadian sweater it's special," said Lazar. "To play in such a prestige tournament like the World Juniors, becoming a part of everyone's Christmas tradition, I was really honoured"
He ultimately wrapped up the tournament as a point-per-game player for the Canadians with seven points in seven games played, in addition to contributing heavy minutes to the Canadian special teams units and playing all three forward positions. The responsibility is no small task for such a young player — Lazar turns 19 in February — but he credits much of his success to the space of international hockey and simply buying into the game plan against the world's best.
"There's a lot more room out there which allowed me to transition to the wing a lot easier. I had a bit more time to make plays up along the walls," said Lazar. "Everyone has their best players from their countries so you have to buy into your role and just embrace it."
"If you look at Finland for example, everyone was high skilled and did their job and they were able to get the job done. Every nation has highly skilled players and any year a different team can win. It just wasn't our year."
As a player on Hockey Canada's radar for some time, the opportunity to play in Malmö didn't come as a surprise for Lazar. He attended the team's evaluation camp in Lake Placid, N.Y., and ultimately earned an invite back to the selection camp in Toronto despite being more reserved than usual in the summer. With a higher confidence level after a strong start in Edmonton and a better idea of what lay in front of him, his play gradually built to the levels it hit in Sweden.
He had plenty of help along the way with Edmonton teammate and World Junior veteran Griffin Reinhart (New York Islanders) and roommate Kerby Rychel (Columbus Blue Jackets) acting as soundboards throughout his time with the team. As a result, Lazar characterizes his time on and off the ice with Hockey Canada as overwhelmingly positive.
"It's incredible. You always have so much to learn from each player because everyone has their special knack which got them to this level," said Lazar. "You go over there and look at the support we have from fans. We had thousands of fans that were just packing the rinks in Sweden. I had no idea to expect that. Even from back home, through social media, the support and congratulations we were getting from Canadians, it was really good."
Going forward, his goal is to simply continue his growth as a player each day. With the World Juniors standing as a step in the right direction for his game, his attention has turned back to the Oil Kings who are gunning for a second Ed Chynoweth Cup after falling two wins short of a successful title defence last season.
Given his eligibility for taking part in next year's World Junior tournament, Lazar said seizing the opportunity to be a team leader was his primary goal should he be invited back. The extra incentive to make a return in 2015, of course, is the opportunity to play on Canadian soil in Toronto and Montreal.
"I know how hard it is to win this tournament now and the big thing for me is, if I'm back there, to let everyone know you can't anything for granted," said Lazar. "You have a whole country behind you, you should be motivated. Just leave it all on the ice."
Between now and then, Lazar will have plenty of opportunity to further develop within the Sens pipeline with his second NHL development and training camps respectively. With the team's success developing NHL players — 14 players on the active roster were drafted and developed by the franchise — he intends to use the organization for feedback and advice going forward.
"You look at the experience these guys have and, ultimately, they're the ones you want to keep happy if you want to be playing in the National Hockey League," said Lazar. "If I have any problems or issues or anything for that matter they're always those guys I can turn to for advice since they offer it up quite generously."
"I send e-mails to Randy Lee quite frequently so I'm going to send him one and see if I can get some feedback from him and use them as the privilege they are just to help me improve even more."
Despite his first NHL training camp experience being altered by injury, Lazar used the time on the sideline as an opportunity to observe how pros operate and soak in the little details needed to survive and thrive at the highest level in the world. If the early results of that limited experience are any indication of what is to come, you can excuse the Sens and their fans for leaving plenty of room for optimism after a world class performance at the World Juniors.
"It motivates me so much more. Everyone wants to play in the NHL and I want to be a part of the Ottawa Senators as soon as I can."
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