Team Canada practised on Saturday at The Fenlands Banff Recreation Centre.
Instead of three pre-tournament games, Team Canada will now only get one chance at a dress rehearsal ahead of the World Juniors.
"Real evaluation comes from games," head coach Dave Cameron said. "You do a lot in practice, but it's not quite the same so you just have to adjust. It is what it is."
Team Canada was set to travel to Red Deer, Alta. to play Switzerland on Sunday and Sweden on Monday, but with COVID cases climbing due to the Omicron variant those games have now been cancelled.
"In the interest of the health and safety of all participants, and following in-depth discussions between Hockey Canada, the International Ice Hockey Federation, local organizing committee and the event medical advisory committee, along with Alberta Health and Alberta Health Services, we have decided to restructure the pre-tournament schedule," said Scott Smith, president and chief operating officer of Hockey Canada.
The updated schedule has not been finalized, however games will not commence until Thursday with the opportunity for games to be played on Friday as well. A total of 11 games were part of the initial pre-tournament schedule, with each team playing a minimum of two games.
Team Canada will continue to skate in Banff the next couple of days before heading to Edmonton where they'll play their one tune-up game. The tournament starts on Boxing Day.
"We'll try to get scrimmages going but, again, that's tough because of the small amount of numbers," Cameron said. "In order to have good habits and intensity the scrimmages will have to be short."
Team Canada's roster includes 14 forwards, eight defencemen and three goalies.
The team has had three full practices since the final cuts and the lines have remained unchanged. Cameron doesn't expect to do much, if any, tinkering until the exhibition game.
"You only change when there's a reason to change and usually that reason is competition," Cameron pointed out.
There will be one change. Michigan Wolverines forward Kent Johnson, who has been quarantining as part of Hockey Canada's COVID protocol, is expected to join the group for his first on-ice session on Sunday.
It may be tough for Johnson and others to get up to speed considering the lack of game action.
"There can be challenges, but you don't make excuses for yourself," said Vancouver Giants forward Justin Sourdif, who hasn't played a game since Dec. 8. "You get yourself prepared whether it's stretching or warming up hard. You go out there and you practise hard...If you're a player of this calibre, that's why you're here, you don't make excuses for yourself."
Still, it's hard to ignore what's happening in the world right now. There's a steady stream of players and staff across all sports entering COVID protocol with games being postponed.
"I just deleted my Twitter, Facebook and stuff like that this morning just to not think about it and stay focused about hockey," revealed Shawinigan Cataractes centre Mavrik Bourque. "I don't really want to know and hear what's going on right now."
Hockey Canada has enhanced their already strict COVID protocols. For example, players have been moved to single rooms to create more isolation.
"Hockey is only part of what we do," Cameron said. "I know this is a major event, but [we have] family and friends outside of Banff and we're also worrying about their health and that's the No. 1 thing. And that's why you can't argue with things being done. It's done in the best interest of health...We've been really strict and we'll continue to be really strict and keep our fingers crossed that that's good enough to keep this tournament going."
With fewer exhibition games to generate chemistry, the bond between Bourque and Shawinigan teammate Xavier Bourgault becomes even more valuable. The pair have been practising on the same line with Team Canada.
"We play together in Shawinigan and we can find each other very well on the ice," Bourgault, an Edmonton Oilers prospect, said. "Right now we're together and maybe we'll be together at the start of the tournament. It's fun to play with him. He's a good playmaker, one of the best in Canada at his age. I can find the ice very well so I think we complete each other."
The pair are good friends off the ice.
"It's so fun," Bourque said with a smile. "We know where we are on the ice. We challenge each other. It's fun, at this level, that we can play together. Sometimes I get the puck in the middle of the ice and when I can hear him on my right side, I just have to dish it to him and I know he will burn the d-man. I like his speed and shooting."
"Familiarity, a lot of times, breeds success," Cameron said. "We'll see how it unfolds and leave that chemistry alone if it's working."
Bourque and Bourgault speak in French when they talk to each other. However, the third member of the line, Windsor Spitfire Will Cuylle, a Toronto native, doesn't speak French.
"Last practice, I was behind the net and I was calling for him in French," Bourque said. "I came back to the bench and was like, 'Sorry, I called you in French.' I will need to teach him."
Cameron says the reduction in pre-tournament games will probably have the biggest impact on the goaltending competition. The team still hasn't established a pecking order between Kamloops' Dylan Garand, Edmonton's Sebastian Cossa and London's Brett Brochu.
"We'll do our work based on practices and go from there," Cameron said.
The trio of 'tenders joined TSN for a round-table discussion during the team's recent quarantine period. The following is an edited transcript of the conversation.
TSN: You guys often get asked to describe yourself as a goalie so I'll do it a little different this time. Brett, what stands out about Sebastian?
Brochu: "He plays really well to his strengths. He's got good size [6-foot-7] and really good movement for a big guy. So, it's impressive to watch. You don't see many guys like him that have that good of crease control. It's pretty impressive."
TSN: Sebastian, what's the scouting report on Dylan?
Cossa: "He's smiling. I got to compliment this guy now, eh? He's going to love this. He's 6-foot-1 and he moves very well. Tracks the puck very well. Really good hands. He's got a good glove. He skates well and places himself at the top of his crease and isn't leaky, doesn't let anything through him, really."
TSN: Dylan, your thoughts on Brett?
Garand: "He works hard in there and competes hard and doesn't give up on a puck. He's got good skating ability and ability to move and stuff like that. He doesn't give a bunch of rebounds out. Pretty solid, all-around game and pretty fun to watch him in practice and games."
TSN: Anyone want to add anything?
Garand: "No, I'm just glad I didn't have to do Cossa (smile)."
TSN: If you could steal something from another goalie, what would it be?
Cossa: "From Carey Price, just the smoothness he has in his game. It doesn't look like he's trying at all. He's a very powerful guy, very explosive guy, so just the way he moves in his crease."
Brochu: "I'd probably take Juuse Saros' crease control. He's extremely impressive and that's a part of my game I need to work on the most."
Garand: "I like what Broch said. I like Saros' speed and the control he does it with. I really admire the skating of Devon Levi. I actually skated with him this summer. I picked up a lot...It's pretty elite, probably some of the best I've seen even from NHL goalies. And then I'd probably take someone's size. Probably not Coss (smile). He's a little too big. I still want to move around the crease, but I'd like a little more size."
TSN: What do you appreciate about Levi's skating?
Garand: "His edge work and his ability to recover. He does this cool little get-up thing where he's in the butterfly and he gets up quick and gets on his edges, but stays low. He's kind of in the butterfly still, almost, but he's hovering on the ice and has the ability to push off and be super strong."
TSN: What's your favourite type of save to make?
Garand: "I like glove saves. I like making a glove save and staring a guy down after I make it. I've kind of done that a couple times at practice."
Cossa: "Chest save."
Garand: "Any save, probably (smile)."
Cossa: "Yeah, any save (smile). Chest save. Just nice and calm and cool, right."
TSN: Makes it seem simple and the guy is almost more disillusioned, the shooter.
Cossa: "Yeah, they're shooting it right at me. There's nowhere to shoot."
Brochu: "I have to go with G on this one, a nice glove save. It always feels the best. I like doing a nice half pad too, just gives it a little extra flash."
TSN: Will you stare down the shooter?
Brochu: "No. No, I try not to, because then I feel like it might just bite me back and then I end up with the guy scoring on me next shot."
TSN: What's the biggest game you've played in your career and what was that experience like?
Brochu: "My first start in London, at home, where it was kind of like a must-win for me, I guess, to stay in the Ontario League. So, yeah, getting that win was definitely huge. I basically just went in there saying I have nothing to lose even though I did have a lot to lose...I went in there with that mindset."
Garand: "Definitely when I was 16. I was the back-up that year and we had two weeks left in the season and our No. 1 guy got injured so I had to play. We were seven points out of a playoff spot and we won eight of nine and had points in all nine to force a tiebreaker game against our biggest rivals, Kelowna, so there was a lot of hype going into the game. It was in our home rink and we had a sold-out barn and all the fans had the towels and stuff. It was super cool. And we ended up winning that game and getting to make the playoffs. So, that was definitely the biggest one of my career. We won like 5-1 or something. It was cool making saves and having so many people cheering for you."
Cossa: "Maybe in Bantam or my first game in the WHL. Bantam, I was playing in the league finals and won that. That was pretty cool. But probably I'll echo Brett. First game in the WHL, playing against a Winnipeg team, they were pretty good, and went in there and tried to play my game and pulled out a 40-save shutout."
TSN: What's something we don't know about you?
Brochu: "I used to be really good at baseball. Growing up, I played a couple years up. That's my hidden talent. I stopped playing a while back, but, yeah, that and just crushing G in ping pong (smile)."
Garand: "Yeah, right. This guy beats me the first two games and it's my first two games playing and he's played a bunch and won a bunch. Then I got warmed up and beat him the next two so we're tied 2-2. We got to keep going."
Cossa: "Not the best ping-pong player, but still better than G, though. I'm 1-0. I beat Dylan as well."
Garand: "He beat me in a game up to one."
Cossa: "Hey, we set the match rules and I won. That's all I can say. I'm 1-0 against G. I'm not the best ping-pong player, but I'm better than him. I don't know, not much more for me. I usually say my feet, but I feel like a lot of people know about that now. I played football when I was kid. Billeted at a young age. Moved away from home at a young age. That's mostly it."
Garand: "Something people don't really know is I brush my teeth in the shower. Some people think that's weird, but that's what I do."
TSN: It's efficient, right?
Garand: "Yeah, and it's more fun too, I find. You brush longer. Maybe Sebastian should try it. His breath's not great."
Cossa: "Anything to take a little jab."
TSN: I've exhausted my question list, but I want to leave the floor open here to Sebastian if he wants to take another run at Dylan.
Cossa: "It's too easy. Look at his face right now! It's me, Mark, Brett and tomato over there. It's too easy."
Team Canada's youngest players, Kingston's Shane Wright and Regina's Connor Bedard, stand out for obvious reasons. They are exceptional talents with incredible vision. However, the way they see the game is different. Literally. Wright, 17, will wear a cage at the World Juniors while Bedard, 16, is going with a bubble. The IIHF requires under-18 players to wear full facial protection.
"I wore the cage my entire life," Wright said. "It's something I've gotten used to. I've never worn the bubble in my life."
Bedard wears a visor in the Western Hockey League and started in a cage at Canada's selection camp.
"Just looking out of it, I don't know, it's weird when you switch from a visor," Bedard explained. "Even at U18s it felt a little weird so I wanted to go to a bubble and try it and I actually like it a lot. I like looking through it."
The different styles have sparked a heated debate amongst teammates.
"I've never tried the bubble, but people say it fogs," noted Winnipeg Jets prospect Cole Perfetti. "I don't think I could ever bring myself to put it on my face. I just don't love the way it looks."
"I kind of like the bubble, not going to lie," said Everett defenceman Ronan Seeley. "I kind of dig it. It looks good. It looks clean, yeah."
"The bubbles look good," agreed Edmonton defenceman Kaiden Guhle.
Did Guhle ever wear a bubble?
"No, I never did. I could never pull it off," the Canadiens prospect said. "I mean, you'd get chirped for wearing a bubble."
"There's usually a couple more chirps," confirmed Edmonton forward Jake Neighbours, who wore a bubble in minor hockey. "They're a bit more rare. Guys will seem to attack you if you're wearing a bubble."
Wright insists he isn't putting any heat on Bedard.
"It's just kind of personal preference," Wright said. "I guess that's what Bedsy wants to do and he feels comfortable with that."
But Bedard is facing some pressure to switch.
"We're trying to get him to change," said Perfetti, "but I think he likes it."
"I think it looks a little better than the cage," Bedard said with a smile. "I'm going to go with that."
Lines at Saturday's practice:
Perfetti - Wright - Guenther
Desnoyers - McTavish - Stankoven
Neighbours - Greig - Sourdif
Cuylle - Bourque - Bourgault
Power - Zellweger
Guhle - Cormier
Sebrango - Lambos
O'Rourke - Seeley
Power play units at Saturday's practice:
Flanks: Perfetti, Bourque
Net front: McTavish
Flanks: Guenther, Bedard
Net front: Neighbours