CALGARY – Showcasing their talents on a gleaming ice pad at the Markin MacPhail Centre were two groups of hopefuls, all vying for a place on the Canadian Junior team. On a bordering sheet only a few steps away was an overflowing set of locked out NHL players.
The irony was striking.
While the ongoing work stoppage could infuse Team Canada with as much talent as it's seen since 2004-2005 – a dominant gold medal victory during the last lockout – an unmistakable air lingers for some. Those who might well have been rookies in the NHL this season have had to bury those thoughts for now and readjust their sights, toward their junior teams (save for Ryan Nugent-Hopkins) earlier this fall and now, toward an opportunity for gold with Canada in Ufa, Russia later this month.
Winnipeg Jets prospect Mark Scheifele grins.
"For a lot of the time I'd catch myself watching a lot of videos on the lockout, reading articles," said the Barrie Colts star, shredding the Ontario Hockey League with 21 goals and 48 points this season. "But I just thought to myself 'There's no need for this'. I've just got to focus on what's at hand and that's playing in Barrie and that's what I started to do."
"At first it was kind of tough to deal with," New York Islanders blue-chipper Ryan Strome admitted, "just the timeline and you didn't really know what to expect… But the task on hand was obviously junior and now the World Juniors and then if it's the NHL after Christmas then so be it."
The lockout could end any day now or it could very well extend into the World Junior tournament before lifting at some point in its' midst, if at all. Surely looking to quell any uncertainty in such a scenario, Toronto Maple Leafs President and General Manager Brian Burke told Hockey Canada recently that Morgan Rielly, Toronto's top prospect, would stay in Russia for the entirety of the tournament if he were to make the Canadian squad.
"Ultimately, we're going to pick the 23 best," said Team Canada head coach Steve Spott of the selection process, following an intra-squad scrimmage on Tuesday evening. "I'm not going to hide that. We're going to pick the 23 best on Friday and hopefully we'll have them for the entire event."
Paired at the outset of camp with Dougie Hamilton, the Boston Bruins' top defensive prospect, Rielly would be getting his first crack at the tournament, off to a quick start in Moose Jaw this season (28 points in 33 games).
Scheifele and Strome meanwhile, would garner another chance at gold after a disappointing bronze-medal finish in Alberta last year.
"It definitely stung me for a long time after," said Scheifele. "I still think about it. I still think about things that I could've done, 'If I did this, we could've won'. It definitely is still in my mind, but I'm definitely working that much harder to make the team and work that much harder to win gold."
They may have been required to alter their focus toward a different prize this winter, but if there ever was a decent consolation award to the NHL at this moment, it's a crack at gold.
"As a kid growing up in Canada you're always watching this tournament on TV around Christmas time," Rielly concluded. "Having the chance to play for Team Canada would be a huge honour and a goal of mine that I've had for a long time."