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Five face uphill battle to make junior team at 17

The Canadian Press

12/13/2008 5:43:19 PM

OTTAWA - The 17-year-olds are easy to pick out at the Canadian junior hockey team's selection camp.

They're the ones wearing full cages over their faces, which is mandated by the International Ice Hockey Federation for underage players at the world junior hockey championships.

Evander Kane, Matt Duchene, Taylor Hall, Brayden Schenn and Ryan Ellis don't love the cages. It feels like they're back in minor hockey again and makes them a target for good-natured ribbing by the 18- and 19-year-olds wearing half visors.

''I don't like it at all, but I've got to wear it,'' Schenn said Saturday.

Kane wasn't so philosophical.

''Your cage is coming halfway up your face when you get hit,'' he complained.

But the youngsters would sleep in them if it meant playing for Canada at the 2009 world junior championship starting Dec. 26 in Ottawa.

Canada often carries a 17-year-old, and even the occasional 16-year-old, on the roster for what is a showcase tournament for players aged 19.

A young player's role is usually limited to spot duty or time on the power play, but appearing in the tournament has a slingshot effect on their hockey development.

Forwards John Tavares and Steve Stamkos were 17 on the 2008 Canadian junior team that won the country's fourth straight gold medal.

While players battled for jobs on the 2009 team in an intrasquad game Saturday night in Gatineau, Que., Stamkos was across the river with the NHL's Tampa Bay Lightning playing the Ottawa Senators.

If Tavares was born five days earlier and thus eligible for the 2008 draft, chances are he'd also be in the NHL and not at this selection camp. Instead, the 18-year-old Oshawa General is emerging as the Canadian team's star player.

Tavares's confidence and performance seem light years ahead of those just a year younger, even though he was another nervous 17-year-old trying to crack the Canadian roster last December.

''He seems a lot older than me,'' Duchene observed.

Sam Gagner was the lone 17-year-old on the 2007 Canadian junior squad and was an Edmonton Oiler the following season. Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby played for Canada at age 16 and 17 and Ottawa's Jason Spezza for three years from 16 to 18.

Hall, a Windsor Spitfire, was 12 and wide-eyed when he watched Crosby, just four years older, play for Canada.

''I remember him scoring a goal against the Swiss where he put it top cheese,'' Hall recalled. ''I might not have been thinking I could do that, but it was certainly in the back of my mind. I certainly dreamt of that my whole life.''

Minus Hall, who isn't NHL draft eligible until 2010, the other four know how much playing for the Canadian team now ups their stock for the 2009 draft.

''Obviously it would help that a lot,'' Duchene said. ''It's going to benefit your career in terms of experience and draft stock. Obviously that's in the back of your mind, but you can't let that eat you up.

''I really want to make it this year. If you make it as a 17-year-old, you're grouped in that elite group of players that have played there, so it's a huge goal to make it at a young age and as young as you can.''

There are seven Canadians aged 19, plus 18-year-old Stamkos, currently in the NHL. That created room at selection camp for an inordinate number of players born in 1991.

But odds are against them actually making the 22-player team that will be named Monday. While their considerable talent got them to camp, most lack the physical strength to consistently compete with and against 19-year-olds.

''They're up against it from the standpoint of their maturity and experience level,'' head coach Pat Quinn said.

For the forwards, the defensive side of their game has yet to catch up with their offence and Quinn insists his players be as good without the puck as they are with it.

Duchene of the Brampton Battalion was the best of the four young forwards to start camp. He had a goal and an assist in the first intrasquad game, even though the centre was playing an unfamiliar position at wing.

But then Kane scored twice in Saturday's intrasquad game in a 7-2 win for Team Red.

In the last 26 years, only six defencemen 17 or under have played for Canada. Jay Bouwmeester, currently with the Florida Panthers, was the last one in 2001, so Ellis of the Windsor Spitfires is a longshot.

''The closer you get to the net, more experience is usually better,'' Quinn said.

Bouwmeester played for Canada at 16 and 17 and the other underage defencemen were Scott Niedermayer (1991), Wade Redden (1995), Luke Richardson (1987), Chris Phillips (1996), Gord Kluzak (1992) and Sylvain Cote (1983).

''Any time you're with guys like that or compared to guys like that it's pretty special,'' Ellis said. ''It would be nice to be the only 17-year-old defenceman on the team.''

Ottawa 67's defenceman Tyler Cuma was on crutches Saturday after injuring his knee during Friday's intrasquad game. His chances of making the Canadian team this year have flown, although the 18-year-old could get another opportunity next year.

''I felt my world junior dreams were shattered as soon as I got hurt,'' Cuma said. ''Obviously it's here in Ottawa where I play and this opportunity doesn't come around too often. It couldn't come at a worse time. It really sucks right now.''

Montreal Junior forward Angelo Esposito, who is trying out for the Canadian team for a fourth time, was put on the wing of Tavares in Saturday morning's skate.

''You try to put guys in places they can succeed and use the skill levels that they have,'' Quinn said. ''That's why we're going to experiment to see who can do what with what.''