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World Juniors: Joel Hofer has been the goaltender Canada needed

The St. Louis Blues pick wasn't at Canada's summer camp, but he earned his way onto the squad and now he's their starter as the national team takes on archrival Russia in the gold-medal game

OSTRAVA, Czech Republic – When Canada was in Michigan for the World Junior Summer Showcase this past August, Joel Hofer was training in Winnipeg. The St. Louis Blues netminder was not one of the five goaltenders chosen to attend the big event, but now Hofer has the national team in the gold-medal game here at the world juniors. It’s all pretty incredible for the 19-year-old.

“It’s unbelievable,” he said. “Obviously I wasn’t invited to the showcase and this was a goal of mine, like a lot of other guys. It’s an honor to be here, let alone as the starter.”

None of the netminders Canada brought to Michigan have played in Ostrava, with Olivier Rodrigue taking on third-string duties while another non-invitee, Nico Daws, started the first two games of the world juniors. Coach Dale Hunter laughed when I asked him why Canada didn’t know about Hofer in the summer.

“He’s had a great year out West,” Hunter said. “It’s one of those things where he has stepped it up. That’s what is great about hockey; you never know.”

And to be fair, Hofer’s ascent really hit another level this fall. Playing in his first full season with the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks after splitting 2018-19 between Portland and Swift Current, Hofer has been on fire, registering a league-leading 1.81 goals-against average and a sturdy .937 save percentage, putting him second behind Everett’s Dustin Wolf. Hofer’s 20 wins is also good for first, tied with Dylan Garand of Kamloops.

“We’ve got a pretty good team there,” Hofer said. “We’re young, but we’re pretty skilled and we have a good ‘D’ corps.”

Right now he’s got a pretty good team in front of him too. Canada blitzed Finland in the first period of the semi-final, ringing off two goals in the first three minutes and leading 4-0 after 20 minutes.

“We know how the Finns can shut you down, like the USA game,” Hunter said. “So we said ‘let’s be good early and try to get pucks in, keep it simple.’ And we cycled the puck well. We broke out well and created some opportunities.”

Now, you could be snarky and point out that Canada didn’t need Hofer to be excellent in what turned out to be a 5-0 win, but he made a lot of good saves along the way, including two prime chances from Colorado pick Sampo Ranta and a nice rush by Ottawa first-rounder Lassi Thomson. Most importantly, he’s giving the boys in front of him confidence - which they’ll need in their rematch with Russia, the team that dismantled them in the round robin with Daws as the starter. Defenseman Ty Smith is a star for the WHL’s Spokane Chiefs, so he knows his divisional rival well.

“He’s a big frame, height-wise,” Smith said of the 6-foot-5 Hofer. “He’s calm in the net, very confident in his play and he’s got the ability to make great saves. He’s good positionally, as well. I don’t know much about goalies, but he’s tough to beat when we play Portland, that’s for sure.”

Of course, as calm and quiet as Hofer can be in Canada’s dressing room, he’s still a teenager facing what he called the biggest game of his life. Luckily, he has discovered the wonders of melatonin, a natural supplement that aids sleep (which is great when you’ve travelled halfway across the globe).

“When it’s night and you can’t sleep, it’s the worst,” he said. “Your mind is racing, there’s social media and all that stuff, so it’s nice to pop a melatonin and you’re lights-out.”

With Russia using both goalies in its semi-final overtime win against Sweden, goaltending will certainly be a storyline in the gold-medal game. Canada may not have known who their guy was this summer, but it’s become pretty clear who their hero is now.

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