Canadian juniors doing their best to perfect 'tic-tac-tao'
Team Canada practises for the IIHF World Junior Championship semifinal at the Air Canada Centre on January 3, 2015. (Ernest Doroszuk/Toronto Sun/QMI Agency)
Call it the Tao of Benoit Groulx.
The coach of the Canadian national junior team gave his team a rallying cry last month.
That’s not a typo. Groulx said it during a meeting with his players during camp in December.
Not only is the unusual description for a pretty goal now printed on the t-shirts the Canadian players wear following practice, it has become the go-to motto when tension needs to be eased in the dressing room.
“When you start building a team, certain things are discussed within the room and we had that phrase out, and it seems it was funny that day,” Groulx said with a chuckle on Saturday. “We just stuck (with) it.”
Defenceman Joe Hicketts recalled the first time Groulx meant to say tic-tac-toe.
“I remember trying to hold it in,” Hicketts said. “Going back to Niagara (during camp), he would say it in the room.
“We are all kind of looking at each other, biting our shirts. I had my shoulder pads on, so I was biting those. Finally he started laughing, so we figured out it was okay to do it.”
We can’t imagine, however, that through five games of the 2015 World Junior Hockey Championship there have been many occasions when the players have had to break the ice. Canada is steaming toward what would be its first gold medal in the event since 2009.
Slovakia should be admired for rebounding nicely after it was badly beaten by Canada on Boxing Day. It will be in the same game when the teams step on to the ice Sunday night at the Air Canada Centre for the semifinal, but it’s not in the same class.
As much as Slovakia has improved since Dec. 26 — which, in theory, would make it a tougher opponent for Canada — it’s not as though the Canadians are playing at the same gear as they were in that match.
“We’re a lot better in the defensive zone, in our transition game,” said captain Curtis Lazar, who one day could wear the same letter with the Ottawa Senators. “We’re comfortable in our system, and that’s a big part of why we’re successful.”
Zach Fucale will start in goal for Canada. Brayden Point, moved on to a line with Lazar and Connor McDavid in the quarterfinal after Robby Fabbri suffered a sprained ankle, will stay with the dynamic pair, Groulx said.
While there is pressure on Canada to get back on top of the under-20 heap, the support through four games in a less-than-full Bell Centre in Montreal and in one game at the ACC has been an advantage that other teams simply have not had.
Having said that, this Canadian team could play in an empty arena and win hockey games.
The players know what is at stake, but it has not been a crushing weight on their shoulders.
“How you manage it is pretty simple ... there are no second chances here anymore,” Fucale said. “For a gold medal, you have no second chance. You just focus on the moment and take advantage of that as much as you can. You play together and you have a chance. We know we won’t get there if we don’t work together.”
Through 15 periods of hockey, Canada has done that. It has scored 29 goals, given up a measly four.
It’s not just talent that has brought success for this group.
There’s always talent when Canada glides on to the ice at the world junior. There’s never a guarantee for success that comes with it.
Why has it gone so well this year? Lazar, the glue guy, was a great late addition. The top line of Sam Reinhart between Max Domi and Anthony Duclair has been a revelation. McDavid is McDavid, all speed and skills and smarts.
There’s depth at all three positions.
And Groulx, while stressing focus and preparation, has let the players be themselves.
“There is no real difference between the coaching staff and us players,” Lazar said. “We are one, we are a unit. We are joking around with each other, in the dressing room, coaching staff included, and to have that unity really helps out. Chemistry stems not just from your linemates, but from your whole team and the management as well.”
You have to think it will add up to tic-tac-gold.