Canada's world under-18 team features some of the top players available for the next two drafts, blending a dangerous combination of size, speed and skill. But taking in the squad's final practice before they headed over to Finland, it was difficult not to classify the team as adorable, due to the players' first names being written on tape and pasted to the fronts of their helmets. Of course, when you're playing for coach Kevin Dineen, who is coming off a gold medal win with the Olympic women's team, there are few questions.
“That was all me,” Dineen said. “I got the idea from my first day working with the women. I told them they could have played a great trick on me if they hadn't been sitting in their actual stalls – they knew it was going to take a few days for me to get to know them.”
The women came up with the tape idea. Unfortunately, they put their nicknames on their helmets – Meghan Agosta was 'Gus,' Hayley Wickenheiser was 'Wick,' and so on – so it didn't exactly help Dineen. This time he mandated a simpler process and the kids have been responding.
“He loves being around the guys,” said Ottawa's Travis Konecny. “He loves getting to know us and interacting with us individually. A lot of the guys here are blown away by the opportunity to be coached by him. Everyone's willing to listen because we know the success he's had and what he's capable of doing in winning that gold medal.”
The coach backed up Konecny's assessment.
"It's really enjoyable," Dineen said. "They're a talented bunch of players, they're eager on the ice and attentive when we talk about how we want them to play. We're certainly not going to dumb it down; they're smart players and we're jumping all-in."
The task in Finland won't be easy. Two of Canada's best eligible players – Kingston's Sam Bennett and Calgary's Jake Virtanen – are banged up from their failed voyages in the CHL playoffs and their health for the tournament has yet to be determined. Plus, there's the always-dangerous Americans, who will be led by the top line of Jack Eichel, Alex Tuch and Sonny Milano, while a potent Swedish contingent also awaits. Team USA has largely played as one team all year and while Canada doesn't have that luxury, there are some bonds. Travis Sanheim and Ben Thomas patrolled the blueline for the Calgary Hitmen together in the Western League, while defensemen Haydn Fleury of Red Deer and Roland McKeown of Kingston played as a pair for Canada's summer under-18 team that won gold at the Ivan Hlinka tournament.
“We're both two-way guys who like to keep the puck,” Fleury said. “We don't like to rim it, we don't like to ice it. We're going to keep it on our stick for as long as we can and make a good play with it.”
While the team was still short one forward at the final practice, reinforcements will be coming, though the number of recruits from teams ousted from the CHL playoffs was yet to be determined. Canada has usually brought underagers over for at least the exhibition games, if not throughout the tourney and this year's crop is pretty exceptional. Konecny was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2013 OHL draft and a star for the disappointing 67's this season, while fellow center Nicolas Roy was the top pick in the Quebec League draft, joining Chicoutimi after a trade from Cape Breton. A third center, Jansen Harkins, was a second overall bantam draft pick to Prince George in the WHL.
“Playing with the best from your country when they're one year older than you and playing against the best in the world is an amazing experience,” said Sherbrooke defenseman Jeremy Roy, another 1997 birthday. “For sure, it's a great honor. It's fun.”
Canada won gold at the worlds last season thanks to a loaded squad that featured Connor McDavid at the top. If Bennett can't go, there will be plenty of slack to pick up and quick chemistry will be key.
“Like usual when you come to a new team, on the first day everyone's quiet,” Konecny said. “But as these four days have gone on, we've seen a lot more smiles, a lot more laughs and you can tell the team is coming together. We're working hard and day by day we're looking more like a team.”
It might even be time to take the tape off the front of their helmets.