BROSSARD, QUE.— As far as head coach Benoit Groulx is concerned, pressure is a good thing. It’s nice he feels that way, because as the man in charge of righting the ship for Team Canada at the 2015 world junior championships – the heat is on.
“We’re in August and I think you’re the tenth person to ask me about the pressure in Canada,” said Groulx, with a smile.
The tournament, a favourite Christmas-time pastime for many Canadians, is back on home turf this year in both Toronto and Montreal, two cities with massive NHL fan bases. Canada has finished fourth at the tournament for two consecutive years – the first time since 1978-81 - and last won gold in 2009.
“I think the way we think and we approach that, it’s more about embracing the tournament and embracing the situation,” said Groulx. “We’re in our country – the top two cities, maybe – in the world to play hockey. The fans are going to be behind us and you know what, if you have pressure it’s because you have a chance to win. When people don’t expect you to win, you don’t have any pressure.”
Finland is the reigning world junior champion after beating host Sweden in Malmo last year. Coming into the tournament, the Finns were underdogs and relished the role after placing seventh at the 2013 event in Ufa, Russia. To win gold, the plucky Finns showed grit and determination at every stage – including a 5-1 victory over Canada in the semi-final to give them a shot at gold.
“We know we have the talent and we also know that the other nations are talented too, and you know what? When you look at the recent results, we’re behind them,” said Groulx of the world. “So I think we’ve got to be humble and we’ve got to come here and put in place a solid team with solid individuals.”
So why it is Canada is lagging behind other countries with this country’s vast hockey resources?
For starters, Groulx believes other countries like Finland have taken a page from Canada’s playbook in terms of building a winning program.
“I really feel that they were copying us in the past,” said Groulx of how the world is beating Canada. “The way Finland won the gold last year was the Canadian way and I think we’ve got to go back to that and this is exactly what has to start (here at summer camp).”
“The Canadian Way” is the mantra for Hockey Canada at the moment at this camp in Montreal and for those at the Under-17 camp in Calgary. The fact that Canada is being beaten with their own game – at their own game – by other nations does not sit well. To get back to that essential game, perhaps Canada needs to find its own version of sisu and play more like the Finns.
“A team that’s relentless,” said Groulx, describing the Finns. “A team that’s all-in and a team that’s tough to play against … we know how to play that game, but it’s up to us to bring that game back on the ice.”
Canada opens the 2015 tournament against Slovakia on Dec. 26, at Montreal’s Bell Centre and moves to Toronto for the quarter-finals after completing the round-robin portion. In August, some five months before the event, players are already talking about forging their team identity and dealing with the pressure of playing at home.
“You’re not going to find any more pressure than playing in a world juniors in Canada,” said forward Curtis Lazar, who was on the fourth place team last year. “We better get used to it fast. We’ve got the right coaching staff in place and we just went over identity in the dressing room and we have the right guys to do it – it’s just a matter of buying in.
“It’s a short-term competition and there’s not much room for error.”
Groulx believes being a good player in the Canadian Hockey League is no longer enough to get the job done anymore. He said he’s not looking for the best in the CHL, but rather, the best in the world to put Canada back on the podium.
“For me it’s all about attitude,” said Groulx, who is coach and GM of the QMJHL’s Gatineau Olympiques. “Talent’s not enough. We’ve got to know if they can play out of their comfort zone, if they can practice out of their comfort zone, if they can adapt to another style of hockey.
“Playing on the world stage is different than playing in the CHL.”
At this camp, split between Montreal, Sherbrooke and Brossard, Canada will face teams from Russia and the Czech Republic. For the players and coaches it’s the first opportunity to measure themselves against what the world might be sending to Canada in December.
For Halifax Mooseheads goalie Zach Fucale, who was in net for Canada last year in Sweden, it’s also the first chance to get focused for what will be a daunting task – to win a medal at home after a two-year drought. He’s up for it.
“Pressure is what makes it fun,” said Fucale. “Everyone wants to score that big goal, everyone wants to make that big save, and everyone wants to be there in those situations.
“We were so used to (Canada) winning before and now it hasn’t been happening lately and we miss that. That’s what we’re preparing for and it starts right here in the August camp.”