As he boarded the Team Canada bus to go to the semifinal game at the World Juniors in January, Bowen Byram started to feel sick.
"Right before warm-up, when I was getting dressed, I went to the washroom and threw up a couple times," the Vancouver Giants defenceman recalled. "In the warm-up I had to get off about 10 minutes through, because I needed to throw up again and that was when the doctor said I wasn't able to go. It never really crossed my mind that I wasn’t going to play. I always thought I'd just gut it out, but I'm sure glad he pulled me, because it got pretty ugly after that."
Erie's Jamie Drysdale filled in for Byram and scored a goal as Canada routed Finland 5-0 to advance to the gold-medal game, which was the next day.
"I was pretty emotional, but watching the guys pull through and beat Finland handily made it easy on me," Byram said. "I woke up the next morning and still wasn't feeling very good. I started to feel a bit better throughout the day, but there were definitely times when I didn't think I'd be able to play."
Byram consumed mostly fluids as he tried to build up the energy needed to face the Russians, who had thumped Canada 6-0 in the preliminary round. Byram had several conversations with Hockey Canada staff throughout the day before the decision was made that he would suit up.
"I knew I couldn't miss that one," he said.
Like Michael Jordan in the 1997 NBA Finals, Byram dug deep and authored his own "flu game." The Cranbrook, B.C., native led all Canadian defencemen in ice time (22:12) finishing plus-2 with one assist in a 4-3 comeback win.
"I felt like I was mentally there enough that I could just think it out," Byram explained. "There was a lot of adrenaline so I was probably running mostly on adrenaline. I just tried to do the best I could and by the end I felt pretty normal."
But during the post-buzzer celebration, Byram's body finally started to buckle. The team was scheduled to leave Ostrava in the Czech Republic early the next morning so there wasn't much time to sleep.
"We landed and I was just like, 'Wow, feeling so, so bad,' but it was definitely worth it," the 19-year-old said. "I mean, walking through the airports in Canada with your gold medal on there's so many people congratulating us and it was definitely a cool feeling."
Byram is hoping to create some more cool moments this year. He is one of seven potential returnees for Team Canada at the 2021 World Juniors. Byram, the fourth overall pick in the 2019 NHL draft, spoke to TSN this week from Vancouver and outlined what he learned from watching Nathan MacKinnon and Cale Makar during his time with the Colorado Avalanche in the playoff bubble. The following is an edited transcript of the conversation.
After a slow start last season you really turned it on after the World Juniors with 33 points in 23 games down the stretch in the Western Hockey League. How did you assess your year?
"I didn't have the camp I wanted to have with Colorado. Whether that was confidence or whatever, I didn't quite perform how I wanted to and that kind of led right into the season in the WHL. I'm not afraid to admit that I wasn't good enough at all. Our team struggled at the start of the year and that definitely had a lot to do with me so when I got back from World Juniors I just got a shot of confidence that I needed and we started to play really well. We made some trades and we became a really good team again so it was fun to watch our team grow."
What role do you see for yourself at the upcoming World Juniors?
"I don't think I have to put too much pressure on myself. I just got to go and be myself and play how I can play. I know a lot of the guys who will be at the camp so that should make things pretty easy. Sometimes guys can put a lot of pressure on themselves thinking they need to be a guy that's leaned on heavily and obviously I want to be that guy, I want to be leader, but at the same time you just have to let things play out and do things to the best of your ability so that's all I'm really worried about."
What was it like in the NHL bubble?
"You just have to enjoy it and be positive every day. Obviously, it's a long time in there and it can be lonely and depressing at times. When I was there I was in the Stanley Cup playoffs so I just remembered that and the second time will be for the World Juniors so you got to remember how lucky you are to be there and be grateful for the opportunity. So, it's about just coming down to breakfast or the rink every day with a positive mindset."
You have a gregarious personality, which should help in the bubble. How would you describe your sense of humour?
"I can be pretty sarcastic and maybe a bit immature at times, but I really like to have fun. I think it's a big part of the game. My dad always told me, 'If you're not having fun there's no use in playing.' Nowadays, it definitely starts to feel like a job at times so whenever you can have fun at appropriate times I think that's huge."
I want to play a little word association with you when it comes to the other potential Team Canada returning players. What's the first thing that pops into your head when you think of New York Rangers left winger Alexis Lafreniere?
"What pops into my mind immediately is his skill on the ice. Obviously, last year he was the best player in the tournament. You see it every day in practice and hanging out with him around the rink."
Lethbridge centre Dylan Cozens?
"Dylan's one of my really close friends. I kind of grew up with him so that's a tough one. I don't know. I guess it's hard not to think about hockey when you hear the names of your buddies. He's a big, strong guy who skates really well, has great skill and sees the ice well."
Sudbury centre Quinton Byfield?
"Q's a cool dude. He's a lot of fun to be around. He's always enjoying himself and a really good player, too ... he's a phenomenal player."
"Oh, Drysie! I think of Drysie and I think of a little, cute boy (laugh). He's so little and cute and we always bug him about that on the team ... We had a lot of fun with him and Q. It was cool. It's not every World Juniors you see two 17-year-old guys [on Team Canada]."
You're a lefty, Drysdale is a righty, if you guys get paired together how do you think that would work?
"It'd be good. He's a guy that uses his feet really well. He sees the ice really well and he moves the puck. I don't think you can really ask for much more from a defence partner. If I was able to play with him I'd be really happy. He's a great kid, too, so he's a lot of fun to be around."
When I interviewed Drysdale back in March he said he was impressed by how hard you worked in practice at the World Juniors. Apparently the data from the monitors you guys wore showed you were the hardest worker. How much pride do you take in your practice habits?
"I got ripped for that a bit (Smiles). Guys would be saying that at practice I'd be doing extra laps just so I had the highest heart rate or whatever. But, yeah, practice is a huge thing, that's where I think you tend to improve the most so I try to take practice very seriously. But, at the same time, I think practice is a time to enjoy yourself. I mean, you're doing what you love to do and you're around your best buddies. But when it's time to work, it’s time to work, and I pride myself on that, for sure."
So, legitimately, the numbers showed you were working hardest at practice?
"I'm not sure if I totally believe those devices. I think it reacts a bit differently to different people and stuff like that, but (smiles) yeah, I'll say I was the hardest-working guy, for sure."
When you have been with the Avalanche, what stands out the most about MacKinnon?
"Everything's so quick. Like, just explosive the way he stick-handles, the way he skates, the way he moves, everything's so quick and explosive ... MacKinnon is almost twitchy, like, you don't know what’s going to happen next when he has the puck. It's pretty crazy to watch and be on the ice with ... there's some guys in the NHL where [defending them] you just kind of cross your fingers and hope for the best and he would be one of them."
What do you notice about Makar?
"He's such a smooth skater. Everything he does just looks effortless. He just looks like he's floating on the ice when he's skating. He's a lot of fun to watch with the way he jumps into the play and how he plays physical as well and he's really good defensively. He's definitely a cool player and somebody I like to watch and learn from as well."
What was your focus during this weird, long off-season?
"It was nice that I got to break it up a little bit when I went to the bubble with Colorado. That was good. Obviously, I didn’t play in a game, but just to be around that kind of environment was really good for me. The biggest thing for me is my speed. I want to get faster. I want to be able to play in the NHL next year so that’s kind of been my focus."
What's an example of something you've changed when it comes to your skating?
"The biggest thing for me is just my explosiveness, my first couple strides. That's definitely something I want to improve and I feel I've been doing a good job of that. Skating is a big thing in the NHL nowadays, so I have to make sure I'm up to par there."