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Mark Masters

SPORTSCENTRE Reporter

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How long did it take Barrett Hayton to get over Canada's heartbreaking overtime loss to Finland in the quarterfinals of last year's World Juniors? 

"To this day, it's a bitter taste in my mouth," the 19-year-old centre told TSN on Friday night after arriving at the Team Canada hotel. "It takes a long time. It's something you just try to put on the back-burner."

Hayton was loaned to Hockey Canada by the Arizona Coyotes on Thursday after playing 14 NHL games this season, producing one goal and three assists. 

"I was extremely excited," Hayton said of the decision. "It's such an amazing tournament and obviously representing your country, yeah, I was very excited."

"That's amazing news to hear for everyone," said Knights forward Liam Foudy. "All Canadians should be happy about that. Barrett is a great player, he’s done a lot for the country in previous events and he's in the NHL for a reason. So, him coming back, he can bring a lot to this team. He can play basically anywhere that coach wants and he's just a great guy as well."

Hayton, who skated on the top line between Rimouski's Alexis Lafrenière and Kelowna's Nolan Foote at Saturday's practice, said the move was "not necessarily" a surprise considering he hadn't played for the Coyotes since Nov. 29. 

The arrival of Hayton, who posted four assists in five games at last year’s event, provides Team Canada with a huge boost as the group aims to avenge last year's sixth-place showing, the country's worst-ever result on home ice. 

"He was an elite player," said Team Canada management group leader Mark Hunter. "I've seen him play at a younger age and seen him grow as a younger player and he wants the puck. He plays a game of puck possession, skill and determination too. Sometimes we all forget about the will and the will is very important for Barrett, the will and the character comes out big time in him."

Last year, Canada had just one returning player, captain Maxime Comtois, at the World Juniors. Now, with Hayton back in the fold, there are five returnees this year, including Grand Rapids centre Joe Veleno, Lafrenière, Halifax defenceman Jared McIssac and Spokane defenceman Ty Smith.

Hayton has been in "constant communication" with his friends on Team Canada and made it clear he plans to take on a leadership role in Ostrava.

"There's nothing that really emulates the tournament," Hayton pointed out. "It's quick, it's high intensity, there's a lot of great teams and a lot of great players so I think there's a ton of little things you take from the tournament and definitely a lot of things that'll help me for this year.” 

Hayton failed to hit the scoresheet in his last eight NHL games, but isn't worried about regaining the scoring touch that allowed him to light the lamp 26 times in 39 games with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds last season. 

"It's the NHL, the practices are extremely high paced," Hayton noted, "you have to be sharp, you have to have to be ready so, yeah, I don't think I've lost a step."

Foudy knows from first-hand experience how hard it is to defend against Hayton. The toughest part? 

"I'd say probably his shot. It was so hard to read for a lot of guys. You try to get in the blocking lane and he'd just pull it around you and he has good hands as well. Not a fun player to play against."

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Before this week, Nico Daws had never been at a Hockey Canada event. The only guy he knew well here was Peterborough goalie Hunter Jones, who trains with him in the summer. 

"I was very nervous coming to camp," Daws readily admits. "I didn't know anybody. I've never done anything like this so to have him be around and for him to be my roommate, it was really special, helped me out a lot and I'm very thankful for that."

On Thursday night, the pair sat and waited to learn their fate together as Team Canada's management staff made cuts. One goalie would have to go and at the start of the week the competition was described as "wide open" by Mark Hunter. 

"Stressful," said Daws of the waiting game. "We had 'The Office' playing in the background, but we weren't really paying attention to it. You're hoping to not get a knock."

But there was a knock. Jones was let go in what Mark Hunter called the toughest decision of the nine players released. 

It says a lot about both Jones and Daws that the Petes goalie, clearly emotional, made sure to credit his rival during his meeting with the media after the decision came down. 

"You're praying that you don't really get the knock and hoping that you can both move forward and be on the team together," Jones said, fighting back tears. "So, I'm really proud of Nico and what he's done this season. He's earned it."

"It's an absolute honour," Daws said. "A little sad that he couldn't be here with me."

Daws has authored perhaps the greatest turnaround story in junior hockey this season. In his first two seasons with Guelph he was an unremarkable back-up posting sub .900 save percentages. In June, all 31 teams passed on him at the NHL draft. It was a moment of truth for the Burlington, Ont. native. 

"I knew coming into the summer that this year would be a big year for me," he said. "I needed to prove myself. Whether that was going to be with Guelph or another team, I didn’t know it, but I needed to be ready. So, I lost 25 pounds in the summer and I really just dedicated myself. I knew what I wanted and I went and got it."

The process started with a new diet immediately after he got back from the Memorial Cup where he watched Anthony Popovich backstop the Storm to the semifinals.

"I did the Keto diet and that was horrible. It works, but I don't recommend it," Daws said with a chuckle. "No, it worked out good. I lost 10 pounds right away doing that and then I got a nutritionist and really focused. I think dieting was my biggest problem last year."

Did he have a lot of guilty pleasures? 

"There's always guilty pleasures," he said with a smile. "I just try not to snack. I'm a big snacker, I love to snack, so I got to cut that out as much as I can, take it easy on the sweets and the candy. I love sour Skittles, but have to put those to the side for a bit."

Now listed at 202 pounds, the six-foot-four Daws says it’s "crazy" how much quicker he feels in the crease thanks to the weight loss. Similarly crazy are the numbers Daws has posted this season, including a .939 save percentage to lead the OHL. He's helped a Guelph team expected to take a step back, remain atop the Western Conference. 

The rise has been meteoric and it’s hard for Daws to sum up what it means to wear the Maple Leaf on the biggest junior stage. 

"It's kind of indescribable," he said. "You know, it’s one of those things that you can’t really put into words. You look forward to it your whole life. I mean, it's a dream as a kid, you watch the World Juniors growing up and just to be a part of that is unbelievable, really."

But the work is far from done. Canada is taking three goalies to the Czech Republic, which means someone may not see any action at all. 

Moncton's Olivier Rodrigue has the most international experience in the group while Portland’s Joel Hofer has comparable numbers (.937 save percentage) to Daws. The stakes are high for whoever gets the call as Canada has never won gold in Europe without the tournament’s top goalie and Group A rivals the United States (Spencer Knight) and Russia (Yaroslav Askarov) both feature highly-touted tenders. 

"My goal is to push to be No. 1," Daws said. "I want to play and I want to be the starting goalie so that's going to be my goal for the next couple weeks going into the tournament."

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Dale Hunter admits this is something he's wanted to do for some time. After two Memorial Cup titles, a gold medal at the 2013 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Cup (the under-18 summer event now known as the Hlinka Gretzky Cup) plus a stint coaching the Capitals in the NHL, Hunter is finally getting his chance to guide Canada at the World Juniors.  

"He wants it bad," said forward Connor McMichael, who plays for Hunter in London. "Yeah, he loves to win. There's nothing he loves more than to win hockey games so he's excited."

"He definitely wants this a lot," said Foudy. "Him and (Knights GM) Mark, they're just winners. They don't go to stuff to lose, right? And they've been winners in London forever and they're coming here to win the gold for Canada so that's the plan."

Hunter made a point of being behind the bench for all six Russia series games. He's attacking this opportunity in the way you’d expect from a man, who's closing in on 800 career OHL coaching wins. 

“He’s not here just for the resume,” said Foudy. “He wants to come here and actually get it done and win a gold medal so having that is a huge boost for us guys.”

Both Hunter brothers have been careful not to speculate about why it's taken so long for this opportunity to come about. However, they have not been shy about laying out their vision for how they want Team Canada to play. 

"We're a skilled team, but we're going to be a hard-working team too," Dale Hunter said, "and we're going to play a fast game. We got good skill, good speed so we'll have to play on top of the puck all the time."

"Our D is going to be very solid," said Mark Hunter, "very mobile, very skilled and can move pucks out of our zone very quickly, which we want to do and get it up to our forwards so I think we're going to play a high-speed game."

The message has been received loud and clear. 

"Just fast," said Lethbridge forward Dylan Cozens when asked about the identity of the team. "Fast and hard and just focus on managing pucks a lot. Getting pucks behind and just hunting them down, getting the puck back and running switches and different plays. But I think the biggest thing is just speed. Speed."

Despite being 59, Hunter has continually found a way to connect with younger players and get the most out of them.

"He trusts his players a lot," noted Foudy, "that's the biggest thing. He's got trust in us to do whatever we want out there, like, as long as we play good D-zone he trusts us to make offensive plays and that's what I like about him."

Hunter is reserved in his media sessions and also with his players. Foudy points out that most of his instruction comes in the form of video sessions. He'll rarely address the Knights during intermissions.  

"He's not an in-your-face coach," observed Mark Hunter. "He's very calm, but he's a coach who gets his point through by ice time and his presence on the bench and in the dressing room. There's a calmness to him and there's a respect that he holds behind the bench that a lot of coaches don't have."

Hunter can also be a disarming presence using a sharp wit to relax players. 

"He's pretty reserved for the most part," said Vancouver Giants defenceman Bowen Byram, "but he's always cracking little jokes here and there when it's appropriate so he makes it very fun coming to the rink."

Sudbury forward Quinton Byfield said Hunter made him laugh after a shootout miss during the selection camp and that wasn’t the only time the 17-year-old was left smiling by the coach. 

"Another funny moment there, he told me to look up in the rafters in Sudbury and his name would be up there so I'll have to check when I’m there one time,” Byfield said with a chuckle. 

Hunter played for Sudbury from 1978-80 racking up 195 points in 120 games. His No. 15 now hangs in the rafters at Sudbury Community Arena. 

And while Hunter is often a man of few words, it’s clear how much this chance means to him. The family connection to the event runs deep as older brother Dave Hunter played for Canada in the first official World Juniors in 1977, which was held in Czechoslovakia. 

"I remember mom and dad left us home here at Christmas alone," Dale Hunter said with a chuckle. "It was pretty special ... quite an honour for him to go over there and for mom and dad to leave the farm."

Now, finally, it’s Dale Hunter's turn to go to the Czech Republic and step onto the biggest stage in junior hockey.   

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Saturday's practice was closed to the public. The lines, per Hockey Canada media relations were: 

Lafrenière - Hayton - Foote
Byfield - Groulx - Cozens
Foudy - Dellandrea - Mercer 
McMichael - Thomas - Lavoie

McIsaac - Smith
Bahl - Bernard-Docker
Byram - Addison 
Drysdale 

Daws
Hofer
Rodrigue 

Absent: Veleno (AHL), Dudas (injury)