Essex’s Matt Puempel and Windsor’s Austen Brassard are teammates once again and the stakes are much higher this time.
The two are members of Canada’s under-18 hockey team, which begins defence of its title today against Sweden at the Memorial of Ivan Hlinka Tournament in Piestany, Slovakia.
“I was a little worried about making the team,” said the 17-year-old Puempel, who plays for the Ontario Hockey League’s Peterborough Petes.
“Anytime you represent Canada, you’re against the best players in your age group. I’m just happy I made it.”
A fast rising star, Puempel was named rookie-of-the year in the OHL and the Canadian Hockey League, but Brassard remembers the high-scoring winger as a different player.
“We played lacrosse together when we were younger,” said the 17-year-old Brassard, who now plays for the Belleville Bulls after a trade last season from the Windsor Spitfires.
“Pump’s played goal and he was pretty good.”
Canada will lean on Puempel for scoring in this tournament after he led all OHL rookies with 33 goals and 64 points in 59 games last season, but the gritty Brassard showed an offensive side in earning a spot on the team.
The six-foot-two, 192-pound winger had a goal and five points in three scrimmage games along with a shootout goal.
“It’s a good feeling,” said Brassard, who is a Windsor Minor Hockey Association product. “I think I was a little bit of an underdog (to make the team) and sometimes, when you’re not getting the bounces, you just have to keep working hard.”
The defending champion, Canada goes into this year’s tournament as the favourite.
“You don’t want to screw up any records and Canada has won this five of the last six times,” the six-foot, 201-pound Puempel said.
Aside from Sweden, Canada will also face Slovakia and Switzerland in pool play.
The other pool features Spitfires defenceman Craig Duininck, who is playing for the United States, along with Russian, Finland and the Czech Republic.
The top team in each will battle Saturday in the gold-medal game. The second-place teams battle for bronze.
Along with national pride, this tournament will also serve as a feeding ground for NHL scouts, who are already gearing up for the 2011 NHL Draft.
“We all realize that it’s best players in your age group, so there’s going to be many scouts coming in,” said Puempel, who is a Sun County minor hockey product. “You just can’t worry about that.”
But players know a title and a solid individual performance will only get scouts buzzing when the junior hockey season starts.
“I’m trying not to focus on myself,” Brassard said. “I want to do well for the team and, by doing that, hopefully it helps me.”
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