|Senators prospect Mark Stone is set to display his talents for his country for the first time. The Winnipeg native is a Team Canada selection for the 2012 IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship, which begins Dec. 26 in Calgary and Edmonton (Photo by Andy Devlin/Hockey Canada).
It is a moment, Mark Stone
will tell you, that has been a lifetime in the making.
But the Ottawa Senators prospect's appearance at the 2012 IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship is just the latest indication of the fast track he's been riding in the last 15 months. Lightly regarded in his draft year — the Senators landed him in the sixth round (178th overall) of the 2010 lottery — the 6-2, 188-pound forward has blossomed into a top-end prospect for the organization.
"It's all come so fast," Stone said from Calgary, where Team Canada is making its final preparations for the world juniors, with its tournament opener set for Dec. 26 against Finland at Edmonton's Rexall Place (3 p.m, TSN). "Being drafted by Ottawa was a huge step for me and being able to have a great, healthy season last year (was big).
"Now, being able to down to Ottawa and work on my skating and have a successful season so far ... it's all surreal right now but when I look back on it, I've worked really hard to get here today."
Perhaps nothing fits the word "surreal" more than the opportunity which awaits Stone in the next two weeks in Alberta. Until now, the Winnipeg has never represented Canada internationally at any level. But now he gets to shine on one of the biggest stages of them all, in a tournament that captivates this nation during the Christmas holiday season.
"I'm amazingly excited," Stone said with an eye toward the world juniors. "I've been growing up watching this tournament from Day 1, and to be able to play in the tournament with 21 other guys who are in the same position as me ... it'll be something special for all of us.
"This has been in the back of my mind since the start of the season. I'm very excited and feel privileged to be able to throw on the maple leaf and play for my country."
Truth be told, it would have been difficult for anyone to predict this back on that June day in 2010 when the Senators made him a low-round draft pick. Coming off an injury-plagued 28-point season with the Brandon Wheat Kings in 2009-10, there was little to suggest what was about to happen in the months ahead.
But Stone opened plenty of eyes last season in Brandon, racking up 37 goals and 106 points to rank among the Western Hockey League's scoring leaders. It got the attention of Hockey Canada, which invited him to its summer evaluation camp for the 2012 world juniors and watched Stone become a dominant force in intrasquad games playing alongside top-five National Hockey League draft picks Ryan Johansen (Columbus) and Jonathan Huberdeau (Florida).
The roll has continued into this fall, with Stone currently leading the WHL with 65 points (27-38) in just 33 games — nearly a two-point per game clip. He arrived in Calgary for Hockey Canada's final selection camp rated a virtual lock to make the team and punched his ticket in a big way. In Canada's first pre-tournament game earlier this week, Stone notched the game winner in a 3-1 victory over a Finnish team regarded as the best to come out of that country in a decade.
While he's earning headlines now, Stone said much of the credit for his rapid development belongs with the Senators organization and the work it did with him over the summer months, both at their annual development camp and in some private sessions with the club's training staff.
"Ottawa has been very supportive of me," said Stone, 19. "They brought me down a couple of times in the summer to train with Marc Power (the team's power skating coach). I've been working with (conditioning coach) Chris Schwarz off the ice. My skating is coming along and I've had so many good experiences in Ottawa so far. Now I'm just looking forward to this tournament and the rest of the season."
Along the way, he's also started to learn about what it'll take to get him to the NHL level someday. Stone's highlight-reel overtime goal allowed the Senators to upend the Toronto Maple Leafs in the deciding game of the NHL rookie tournament in September in Oshawa, Ont. He also saw his first NHL pre-season action at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto.
"You understand about how fast the game really is up there," Stone said of the benefits he gained from those experiences. "The world juniors is a pace up from the Western league, the Ontario league and the Quebec league. The hockey keeps getting faster and faster, and experiences like that never leave a guy like me."
Now it's time for him to savour a holiday season unlike any other. And if it means a Christmas spent a couple of provinces away from home, so be it.
"It's going to be a little nerve-wracking," Stone said when asked about what he expects his first world junior experience will feel like. "This is the first time I've played in a world event and for it to be on Boxing Day playing the Finns ... you watch it every year and you'll be a little star struck at first until you get that first shift under way. Then it all goes away.
"There's very few things I'd miss Christmas for, but this is obviously one of them."
Stone will be joined at the world juniors by at least three other Sens prospects. Centre Mika Zibanejad
and defenceman Fredrik Claesson
— both 2011 draft picks — are set to represent Sweden at the event, while forward Jakub Culek
, a 2010 draftee, is on the Czech Republic's roster. Ottawa 67's forward Shane Prince
, a 2011 Senators second-rounder, will learn Friday whether he's made the final cut for Team USA.