On Sunday night, as a two-week quarantine winded down, Team Canada finally got to hold a poker tournament. Plans to play some virtual cards had been derailed early in the isolation period due to internet issues at the hotel in Red Deer, Alta.
"They actually figured out the Wi-Fi situation so we were all able to hop on Zoom and play poker together," said London Knights forward Connor McMichael, one of six returning players at the camp. "My favourite moment [of quarantine] was probably having a little competitiveness and playing some poker with the guys and trying to win a little bit of money."
Kelowna Rockets defenceman Kaedan Korczak defeated goalie coach Jason LaBarbera in the finals.
"I was one of the first 10 people out," McMichael said. "I was a little bit disappointed in myself."
During the quarantine period, Team Canada's more experienced players split up into committees to help the group navigate the down time. McMichael served on the social committee, which also organized a Rock Paper Scissors tournament. Saginaw defenceman Mason Millman defeated assistant coach Mitch Love in that event.
"Honestly, we were more busy than I expected and it wasn't too bad," McMichael said. "It sucks and obviously none of us wanted this to happen, but we're all focused on one goal, which is to make the team and ultimately win a gold medal so I think it's easy to stay motivated."
And while the Washington Capitals first rounder struggled in poker, he's proven to be a clutch performer on the ice. McMichael spoke to TSN via Zoom and explained why he was able to deliver a series of key goals at last year's World Juniors despite being a younger player on the team.
The following is an edited transcript of the interview.
You came up big for Team Canada last year, including scoring the first goal to spark a comeback against Team USA on Boxing Day, opening the scoring in the semifinals against Finland and then posting a goal and an assist in the third period in the gold-medal game against Russia. Why do you handle pressure situations well?
"I like the pressure. When I play my best is when guys are able to rely on me or coaches are able to rely on me. I just want to feed that to other people and make them feel more comfortable, because the more comfortable you feel in big situations it helps out the team a lot more."
🇨🇦 gets on the board first! Connor McMichael finds mesh and Canada takes an early 1-0 lead over Finland. pic.twitter.com/0xdf01dITz— TSN (@TSN_Sports) January 4, 2020
How do you deal with nerves?
"Last year, first time playing World Juniors, it was a dream come true so you're obviously really nervous. You want to represent your country and win a gold medal so before every game you're nervous and you have a lot of adrenaline. I like the approach of joking around with guys in practice ... to ease the nerves and that's what I'll look to do this year as well."
You got the primary assist on the game-winning goal in the final last year. What do you remember about the play?
"It was a neutral-zone regroup and [Jacob] Bernard-Docker just shot the puck up to me and it was late in the game so I was just trying to get the puck in. I tipped it and I think it hit the D's stick or skate and it went to the middle of the ice to Akil [Thomas] and he took care of the rest. Honestly, I was just trying to play it safe and get the puck in, but it took a fortunate bounce right onto his stick and he made a great move and scored the winner."
After two weeks in a hotel room, what are you expecting from Tuesday's practices?
"It will be tough, for sure. Sitting around your hotel, there's nothing you can do to simulate being on the ice. We've been riding bikes and working out every morning, but it will be a lot better being able to get back on the ice. I'm sure Bear [coach Andre Tourigny] will have good practices planned."
Wake up ➡️ meal delivery ➡️ team workout ➡️ Netflix & more!@C_Schwinny10 takes us through a day in the life in quarantine at #WorldJuniors @SportChek selection camp.— #WorldJuniors (@HC_WJC) December 4, 2020
For more from the players' perspectives, check out https://t.co/ECgBuwTGf0. pic.twitter.com/lgzmJgS1vd
During quarantine you heard from a series of guest speakers, including NHLers Morgan Rielly, Alex Kerfoot and Sam Reinhart. What was that like?
"It was cool to hear from the guys on the Leafs about their bubble experience. It was good to hear what they got up to in the bubble and they gave us some advice. Even playing without fans, they were talking about that and giving us little tips. And then they talked about their back stories and the great careers they've been having so far."
What part of their message resonated the most?
"There's been moments where they've been down on themselves and haven't been able to succeed the way they want to in the playoffs or World Juniors and stuff like that. So, they said that no matter what happens in the tournament you're making everyone proud so just don't get down on yourself if it doesn't turn out the way you want it to, because you're going to have a long career."
Before the quarantine, you played on a line with Lethbridge centre Dylan Cozens in a pair of scrimmages. What was the chemistry like?
"Me and Coz played well together. He's got some great speed so come tournament time I'd love to play with him."
What stands out the most about his game?
"I'd say his hockey sense and his speed. When he picks up speed in the neutral zone he's one of the fastest skaters I've ever seen."
Cozens was skating in London, Ont., before coming to camp, did you guys get a jumpstart on generating that chemistry?
"Yeah, we had a couple skates together just working on little two-on-one drills or whatever it was and trying to build some chemistry."
You said in a previous interview that you gained around eight pounds in the off-season, have you felt that on the ice?
"Yeah, I've felt that on the ice a lot. Just battling in corners and taking pucks to the net you feel a lot stronger. It's been a lot longer off-season than usual so I was able to be in the gym a lot and put on some more weight and being in the bubble with the Capitals was good for me. I was able to workout with those guys and go through their strength programs and it helped me put on some muscle. You feel a lot faster and stronger on the ice when you’re able to do that."
How different are those NHL guys in the gym versus what you see in juniors?
"They're grown men so they're throwing weights around and it's not what you're used to in junior hockey, but that's kind of a big thing to make the jump. You got to be strong and be kind of a bigger guy so that's something I'm working towards."
London Knights goalie Brett Brochu, your OHL teammate, also had a strong start to camp. What stands out to you about him?
"How hard he works. A lot of people overlooked him through his whole OHL career so far and even through the NHL draft, he obviously wasn’t drafted, and I know how good of a goalie he is. He competes really hard and doesn't get that down on himself and he's for sure in the running to make this team. I'd love to have him on the team, because I know what he's capable of."