VANCOUVER — Alexis Lafreniere isn’t thinking much about the elite class he’s about to join — he just wants to play hockey.
The 17-year-old will be Team Canada’s youngest player at the world junior hockey championship next week.
Few athletes have made the squad before turning 18. Those who have include some of the biggest names in the sport, from Wayne Gretzky to Connor McDavid.
But Lafreniere didn’t consider himself an underdog going into last week’s selection camp in Victoria.
“It doesn’t matter how old you are,” he said before the roster was finalized. “We all have the same chance.”
His spot on the national squad was solidified earlier this week when it was confirmed that L.A. Kings prospect Gabe Vilardi will miss the tournament due to a back injury.
Team Canada coach Tim Hunter said he likes what Lafreniere brings.
“He’s capable of being on this team because he’s good enough,” Hunter said at the selection camp. “He doesn’t play like a young player. Plays heavy, plays smart, plays hard. Doesn’t have those young player moments where ‘Oh, this is hard’ and forget his assignments and what have you.”
Lafreniere has already drawn attention for his quick hands and deadly shot during his time with the Rimouski Oceanic in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
The six-foot-one, 192-pound forward put up 80 points in his rookie campaign last year and has 17 goals and 34 assists so far in his second season.
“He’s the kind of player that sees the game,” Rimouski’s assistant coach Charles Juneau said in a phone interview. “He knows where the puck is going before it gets there, he knows where teammates are going to be before they get there.”
Lafreniere, a native of the Montreal suburb St. Eustache, Que., was just 15 when he started playing with the Oceanic. Since then, he’s grown into a more complete player, becoming more concerned about details and working on playing without the puck, Juneau said.
The young athlete’s passion for hockey is obvious and infectious, the coach added.
“He’s that kind of guy that loves to be on the ice,” Juneau said. “If we don’t kick him off the ice, he’ll stay there all day.”
Playing against older players at the international level will bring a bigger challenge, Lafreniere said.
“You have to raise your game,” he said, noting that there will be positives, too.
“I think that I can learn a lot from the other guys. They are older and have a lot of experience.”
St. Louis Blues defenceman Jay Bouwmeester remembers being 16 years old and playing on Team Canada with Dallas Stars centre Jason Spezza at the 2000 world junior tournament.
Canada had an exhibition match up against Sweden and the then-19-year-old Sedin twins, Henrik and Daniel.
“They beat us pretty bad. And (Spezza and I) were just sitting on the bench. We we just like ‘Oh man, what are we doing here?'” Bouwmeester said. “But as the tournament went on, we got to play more and we really felt like more of the team.”
Being a young player in that environment can be intimidating.
“From 16 to 19 in that tournament, there’s a lot of changes. Physically, experience, all that, ” he said. “So when you’re a young player, these 19-year-old guys are guys that have been to NHL training camps and played some games. And you’re kind of like in awe of these guys.”
While it can feel like the pressure and pace are relentless during the tournament, looking back, “it’s no big deal,” Bouwmeester added.
“You’re not going to remember specific things from games. You’re going to remember the experience and the friendships you made,” he said.
The Blues are currently on a Canadian road swing, so Bouwmeester has caught some of Lafreniere’s play on TV recently.
“The guy’s obviously a special talent and deserves to be there,” he said. “I wish him all the best.”
Pittsburgh Penguins captain and Rimouski Oceanic alum Sidney Crosby has also watched some highlights of the up-and-coming hockey star.
“I think the fact that he’s on the team obviously says a lot about what kind of talent he is and I think it’s a great opportunity to be a young guy and playing for Team Canada regardless of how old you are,” said Crosby, who was 16 when he first wore the Maple Leaf at the world junior at the 2004 tournament.
“But I think at (Lafreniere’s) age just enjoying it (is important). He’s got another year until his draft so hopefully he’s not putting too much pressure on himself.”
— With files from Dirk Meissner in Victoria and The Associated Press.
— Follow @gkarstenssmith on Twitter
Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press