Junior B this ain't

PAUL FRIESEN -- Winnipeg Sun

, Last Updated: 9:49 AM ET

Talk to most of the players invited to try out for Team Canada and this year's World Junior Hockey Championship and you'll hear a similar story.

All about how they watched the annual tournament with their dads over the years, dreaming of a day when they'd wear Canadian colours and go for gold themselves.

Darren Helm of St. Andrews didn't have that fantasy.

That's because Helm was light-years from hockey's main breeding ground, playing for the Selkirk Fishermen of the Manitoba Junior B League as little as three years ago.

If you're a 17-year-old from Manitoba and you're no closer to the Western League than that, well, good luck.

Yesterday, Helm, just six weeks shy of turning 20, was one of three Winnipeg-area players to land the most coveted invitation in junior hockey, and you can bet there aren't too many on the list of 38 who appreciate it more.

"I never thought I'd be the calibre of player to play in this," Helm said from Medicine Hat, where these days he's a high-scoring member of the WHL's Tigers. "There's tons of good players in the WHL that could have been invited. To be named to that camp is pretty special."

Helm only got the news when he checked the Internet at his billet's home yesterday morning -- after lying awake much of the night, worrying about it.

"I was kind of nervous to go down and check it," he admitted. "It was on my mind all night. I'd been thinking about it all summer ... playing for your country would be a huge honour. This is the next step to getting that chance."

He and the other 37 hopefuls -- 11 of whom are returning from last year's gold-medal-winning squad -- will battle it out for 22 spots, beginning Sunday, in Calgary.

The other two Manitobans are Codey Burki of the Brandon Wheat Kings and Jonathan Toews, who plays at the University of North Dakota.

Toews, part of last year's team, was a no-brainer to be invited back. And Burki was tied for the WHL scoring lead yesterday, with 21 goals and 47 points in 31 games.

Helm didn't have anything like that to fall back on, although 34 points in 33 games is nothing to sneeze at.

It was actually last season, while he was putting up 41 goals, that Helm began to think he might have a shot at spending this Christmas in Sweden.

He's still in tough, as 22 forwards will be scrapping for 13 spots, but at least he's in the mix.

"I'm definitely going to have to prove in Calgary I belong there," he said. "I'll have to make them not cut me."

It figures he'll be competing against Burki, a fellow 19-year-old who's been a regular opponent of his since childhood.

Burki, while half-expecting the invitation, was still walking on air when Wheaties boss Kelly McCrimmon gave him and teammate Dustin Kohn (from Edmonton) the news after practice yesterday.

"I had a big smile on my face," Burki said from Moose Jaw, where Brandon plays tonight. "I don't think there's any bigger honour in hockey, except for maybe winning the Stanley Cup."

Burki is one of those who watched the tournament with his father in years past, day-dreaming about being in uniform for Canada.

One of the first people he called yesterday was dad, who, after congratulating him and telling him how proud he was, had this to say: now go make the team.

"They know I can kind of put the puck in the net," Burki said. "But there's plenty of other guys who can do it, too, guys that are returning. If they want me to play a defensive role, that's fine. Because I've been working hard at that, too."

That's the thing about trying to make this team. What you've done until now doesn't really matter.

Scorers sometimes become checkers. Stars can become role players.

And who knows? Maybe a Selkirk Fisherman can become something he never dreamed of.


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