VICTORIA — It’s a Canadian Christmas tradition as enduring as gifts, gatherings and punch bowls of rum and egg nog.
The world junior men’s hockey championship, which starts Boxing Day and ends with a championship final early in the new year, seems to capture the hearts of Canadians every Christmas season.
Many NHL superstars have represented Canada in the junior tournament, including Connor McDavid, Carey Price, Jonathan Toews and John Tavares.
Canada will have home-ice advantage in Vancouver and Victoria as it attempts to defend the gold medal won last year in Buffalo.
British Columbia Premier John Horgan is eagerly anticipating the show.
“Although the United States tends to focus on the (college football) bowl season around Christmas, the Sugar Bowl, the Rose Bowl, every Canadian hockey fan knows what happens on Boxing Day,” Horgan said. “That’s when the world juniors start. I can’t wait to get going.”
Of the 10 teams in the tournament, Canada is in group A with the Czech Republic, Denmark, Russia and Switzerland. Canada’s opening game is Wednesday against Denmark at Rogers Arena in Vancouver.
Group B includes Finland, Kazakhstan, Slovakia, Sweden and the United States. Group B will play at Save-On-Foods Memorial Centre in Victoria.
The teams in each pool play each other in a round-robin format, with top teams advancing to quarterfinals and semifinals. The final is Jan. 5 at Rogers Arena.
Team Canada coach Tim Hunter acknowledges the expectations to win gold, especially at home, are high and the pressure can be intense. Many of the players are 19 years old, but forward Alexis Lafreniere is the youngest on the team at 17, making him the ninth-youngest player to suit up for Canada at the world juniors.
Hunter said he wants the players to channel the pressure in a positive direction.
“These guys grow up wanting to wake up on Boxing Day with a Hockey Canada jersey on and to compete in this environment,” he said. “It’s a privilege to be in this environment and play in Canada. We look at it as an opportunity — not so much the pressure and expectations of it all.”
Hunter, one of the NHL’s all-time penalty leaders, said speed and quick puck movement will be the trademark of the 2019 team, which he expects to be one of the fastest Canadian squads ever.
Defenceman Evan Bouchard, who played seven games with the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers before being sent back to the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League this season, moves the puck with speed and authority and he is expected to be a strong presence on the power play.
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Forward Maxime Comtois, the lone returning player from last year’s championship team, has been a dominant presence for Canada prior to the tournament, notching two goals and two assists in an exhibition win against Switzerland.
Forward Jack Studnicka, of the OHL’s Oshawa Generals, said Canada is getting better every day.
“There’s going to be so many emotions in this tournament, so many highs and lows,” said the Boston Bruins draft pick. “You have to level your emotions and stick to playing and the tasks. It’s definitely a learning process and we’re kind of feeling each other out here.”
Forward Cody Glass, a top Vegas Golden Knights prospect, said he got chills stepping on the ice in the pre-game exhibition contests in Victoria and hearing the cheers from the sold-out arena.
“Canada is so passionate about the tournament,” he said.
There is work to do, though. Canada lost 5-2 to Finland in the final tuneup for both sides on Sunday in Vancouver.
Hunter wasn’t happy with the urgency Canada showed or the power play.
He said he might tinker with the lines.
“We will re-assess things as we go,” he said. “I like to stay consistent, give them some time to build chemistry. They’ve had three games now. We’ll analyze that.”
Hunter was happy to get forward Brett Leason into Sunday’s game after he missed the first two exhibition contests with a hand injury.
“I thought he got better as the game went on,” Hunter said. “I liked the way he finished. We are going to have to move some parts around to fit him in because I think he’s a capable player to contribute on this team.”
Hunter still isn’t sure who his No. 1 goaltender will be. Vancouver Canucks prospect Michael DiPietro and Toronto Maple Leafs draft pick Ian Scott are the candidates.
“That’s a good question,” Hunter said. “They both made some big stops (Sunday). We let four goals in (plus) an empty netter. Its hard to say. You are never happy with four goals. We’ll look at it and analyze it. That’s why we started both guys to give them a chance to play. We believe in them both. There is no one guy that has an edge over the other.”
— With files from Jim Morris
Dirk Meissner, The Canadian Press