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Mark Masters

SPORTSCENTRE Reporter

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Team Canada captain Kirby Dach is out of the 2021 World Juniors after sustaining a wrist injury in Wednesday's pre-tournament game against Russia.

"It's heartbreaking for him and for us," said Scott Salmond, Hockey Canada's senior vice-president of national teams. "He didn't have to be here. He didn't have to be at camp on Day 1. He wanted to be and he made that clear. And he made it clear last night that he would like to stay if he could and then obviously he has other obligations, [but] that's one of the first things he said. When a guy makes that kind of commitment and then he can't see it through it's heartbreaking."

There is no plan to name a new captain.

"We have a captain," Salmond said.

In many ways it's impossible to replace Dach, who reached out to the Chicago Blackhawks and asked to be loaned to Hockey Canada for the World Juniors despite having already established himself in the National Hockey League. He produced six points in nine playoff games inside the Edmonton bubble this summer while logging the second most minutes among Chicago forwards behind only Patrick Kane.

Dach spoke with alternate captains Bowen Byram and Dylan Cozens last night before sharing a few words with the rest of his teammates via Zoom. Blackhawks defenceman Brent Seabrook, who Dach lived with last season, reached out to console the 19-year-old, Salmond said. ​

Dach will now head to Chicago where he'll be evaluated by the Blackhawks' medical staff.

Dach will not play in the World Juniors, but he made a big impact on Team Canada in his nearly 40 days with the group. There was a highlight-reel 'Tic-Dach-Toe' pass in an early practice. He was dominant in the intra-squad scrimmages including pulling off a spin-o-rama assist. A natural centre, he shifted to the wing without complaint to help Andre Tourigny create the best lineup possible. Canada's head coach described Dach as "the ultimate team player" after Wednesday's pre-tournament game.

"Just seeing his leadership and having that [NHL] experience, he really showed that here," said forward Dawson Mercer, one of six returning players on the roster. "He never let off the pedal. He was competitive, a good leader, good guy, everything you could ask for from a guy coming back. He showed us respect and had a positive impact on our group."

Team Canada has already faced its share of adversity since opening camp on Nov. 16 in Red Deer, Alta. Most notably, there was a two-week quarantine after a couple players tested positive for COVID-19 and five players were ultimately not cleared to return.

Now, they must push forward without Dach.

"We're a resilient bunch," said Salmond. "We've been through a lot already, but when you lose a person like Kirby, his character, his professionalism, his ability on the ice, it's difficult … any time you lose your captain, on any team, no matter how talented or deep you are, there's going to be a void there."

 

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Canada's incredible depth gives Tourigny plenty of options to fill the void on the ice. The roster still has 19 first-round picks, including all the 13 remaining forwards. Phil Tomasino, who produced 100 points in the Ontario Hockey League last season, was a healthy scratch on Wednesday.

And Quinton Byfield, who started the pre-tournament game on Canada's fourth line, looked like a player ready for more responsibility.

"There's a lot of players who could've been out there in the last minute when they pulled their goalie and the reason we decided to put Q there is because he earned it and there's a message there," said Tourigny. "We asked Q to manage the puck a little bit better than he did in the four intra-squad games and he worked really hard at it and he's super coachable. His puck management got better the last two, three days and [Wednesday night] he was one of our best players."

"He used his size and speed to his advantage," observed Mercer. "When you have that size, those guys sometimes don't move as quick, but he's a quick player and gets around really smoothly and he used that to his advantage last night."

Early in camp, Byfield revealed that during the pandemic pause he added 10 pounds of muscle to his already impressive 6-foot-4 frame.

"Trying to be heavier on pucks and finishing my hits and using my size to my advantage," he said. "There's more power in my stride. I can be a little more explosive off the puck, quick little transitions and that will help me quite a bit. And also I'm using my body a little more and trying evolve my physical game by shielding the puck and, with my opponents, separating the body from the puck."

 

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Another positive development on Wednesday night was the play of Northeastern University freshman Devon Levi, who stopped all 23 shots faced in his Team Canada debut.

"I was a bit nervous at first, for sure," he admitted. "I mean, I always pictured myself, as a kid, playing in this tournament and I never thought it was going to come true and here I am. So, there were definitely a bit of nerves."

Before every game, Levi does some visualization and taps into his enjoyment of the game.

"I just sit down by myself and go back to moments in my life that I just loved playing and played well and just enjoyed the game and I feel that fire and that's what helps me play well," he told TSN's Ryan Rishaug.

Now, Levi has a new memory to look back on.

"He was confident and composed," observed Tourigny. "He didn't make it look tougher than it was, you know, everything looked smooth and he gave confidence to the team. We knew we had a good goalie."

Levi, who also posted a shutout in the final intra-squad scrimmage at Canada's selection camp, was especially sharp late in the game as the Russians pressed for the equalizer. He stopped Yegor Chinakhov on a partial breakaway with just over five minutes left.

"The read I made was he was going to shoot it and he did," Levi explained. "He shot it five-hole. I didn't think he had enough time to make a deke, because one of our D [Thomas Harley] was on him."

The performance is only the latest highlight during Levi's remarkable rise up Canada's depth chart. He wasn't even invited to the virtual summer camp, but now has a secure grip on the No. 1 job at the World Juniors.

"It was unreal," he said post-game on Wednesday night. "I feel like today was the first time we felt like we were bonding and fighting for something on the ice. Now, we're all in the same boat. We're all working together and woking toward that gold medal."

 

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Ten German players were released from their extended quarantine on Thursday.

"It was an unbelievable feeling," said forward Tim Stuetzle with a wide smile following the first of two scheduled practices. "You can see that everybody was excited to be back. We can't wait to play our first game."

They won't have to wait long.

Germany opens the tournament at 6 pm ET on Friday and then will play Canada on Saturday also at 6 pm ET. The German roster has been decimated due to positive COVID-19 tests. On Thursday, it was revealed another player tested positive so, right now, the team only has access to 14 skaters (nine forwards and five defencemen) and two goalies.

"It's a tough situation, but I don't see it as an excuse," Stuetzle insisted. "We just want to battle hard and have fun. We have great guys and a great locker room and everyone will go hard and, in the end, we'll see what happens."

Stuetzle practised on a line with John-Jason Peterka and Florian Elias and that trio should get plenty of ice time.

"I want to play a lot so I think I'm ready for that," said Stuetzle, who broke a bone in his hand in training camp with Mannheim in the Deutsch Elite League on Oct. 12. "I haven't played a lot of games the last seven, eight months so it will be a lot of fun playing a lot of minutes."

What's the most he's ever played in a ga​me?

"In a junior game for the under-20 team in Mannheim I played the last nine minutes once, because we were [down] two so that's probably the game I played the most. We also only had three lines," he recalled with a laugh. "I got sick after. It was not our real coach who coached, it was our assistant, and the coach was somewhere else and he got really pissed because so many guys got sick after that. But it was a lot of fun playing a lot of minutes."

 

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Event organizers considered changing the schedule to make it easier for Germany to get going at the tournament, but the team ultimately decided to stick with the status quo.

"We had the offer from the IIHF and I have to say the IIHF was nice to us and wanted to help us," said general manager Christian Kunast. "We could push back the Canada [game] maybe, but then we didn't have the free day in front of the Slovakia game and we want to keep the free day before the Slovakia game, because we are realistic."

Germany was always going to be in tough to beat Finland and Canada so they've targeted the game against Slovakia as their best bet to get a win and earn a quarterfinal berth.

But sticking with this schedule is still a risky move considering most players went 11 days without skating prior to Thursday.

"Maybe the biggest challenge is to come out of the games healthy," Kunast admitted. "There is, for sure, concerns about injuries, but we had good workouts in our hotel rooms, two a day, and the guys worked hard and they are ready. Sometimes it's good to do things off the ice and we will be ready tomorrow when the puck drops."

The team opted to have two separate practices on Thursday and another skate on Friday morning to help the players get their feel back. This is new territory for the staff. Head coach Tobias Abstreiter said he hasn't run a bench with so few players since he worked with 10-year-olds.

"We have to be very smart," Abstreiter said. "We can't get caught out there. Our shift length has to be shortened. We have to play very efficient and intelligent. We have to reduce maybe our offensive play a little bit to put more energy into our defensive play. With all the commercial breaks, that may help too."

The staff is urging the players to not look at the scoreboard early in this tournament.

"This morning we had a short meeting and we just said we always have to stay positive," said Abstreiter. "Everybody has to put his best performance on the ice. We will not look at the results first. We want to improve game by game and practice by practice and at the end of the tournament we want to have a good performance."

 

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It was a day off for Canada’s players, but Mercer still got some business done. The Chicoutimi forward agreed to terms with the New Jersey Devils on an entry-level contract.

Mercer awoke to the news on Thursday morning.

"Joy came to my face," the Bay Roberts, N.L. native said. "I couldn't wait to get the deal done and get started with the organization. When it was announced my phone blew up and it was a great feeling, an early Christmas gift."

How many messages did he get?

"I wouldn't be able to tell you. I replied to so many and then I get more again and I reply and it keeps on filling up, but that's support you love to see."

Only hours earlier, Mercer was on the ice in Edmonton playing for Team Canada. Before puck drop, Mercer had created a buzz on social media, because of his nifty warm-up routine.

"I've been doing it in the Q ever since I was in Drummondville and I still do it in Chicoutimi. It's always something I like to do. I like to go pretty good in warm-up and get a good skate in, but then I like to take the time just to work on my hands, flip the puck around, have a bit of fun. It's just something I've always done. I usually keep that same little routine. It's the one thing I like to do before a game and everything else I'm pretty free, but that's something I like to keep in my back-pocket."

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Team Canada's next practice is scheduled for Friday at 6 pm ET.