Golden expectations

PAUL FRIESEN -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 11:05 AM ET

It's about Team Canada and the upcoming World Junior Hockey Championship: after three straight gold medals, and with just three players returning from a year ago, it's time to take the foot off the gas pedal, right?

Makes sense that this season's tournament, Dec. 26 through Jan. 5 in the Czech Republic, should represent a rebuilding year, especially with next year's event set for home soil, in Ottawa.

Get some valuable seasoning for all your 18-year-olds, far from the Canadian media glare, and set your sights on putting together another juggernaut for 2009.

Just don't tell it to the people behind Team Canada, '08.

"I don't think Canada ever rebuilds," head scout Al Murray said during a conference call yesterday. "We obviously reload."

OK, how about you, Craig Hartsburg? Surely, as the head coach, you're not going to pile all that pressure onto the shoulders of a bunch of teenagers who've never even played in this thing before?

"Every world junior tournament, we expect to win the gold medal," Hartsburg said. "It's a lot of responsibility on our kids. But they've all grown up watching this, they've all grown up playing in under-17 programs, under-18 programs, knowing the ultimate goal is to be part of this team and win a gold medal."

With that, the countdown to the World Juniors officially got underway with the unveiling of the roster for Team Canada's final selection camp, next week in Calgary.

Of the 37 players invited, 22 will be deemed worthy of pulling on the Canadian jersey and the weight of expectation that comes with it.

Coming on the heels of that indelible performance by Winnipeg's Jonathan Toews a year ago, just one Manitoban has a crack at this year's team: 19-year-old Ryan White, a high-scoring centre from Brandon who plays for the WHL's Calgary Hitmen.

Two junior-aged players currently in the NHL -- Sam Gagner of the Oilers and David Perron of St. Louis -- could be added before the start of camp next Monday, but that's it. If their NHL clubs say no, Canada will lean on no more than three players who won gold last year: forward Brad Marchand, defenceman Karl Alzner and goalie Leland Irving.

"We're not really concerned with that," Hartsburg said. "Two years ago in Vancouver we only had one player returning and it turned out pretty good. And last year we had a bunch. So every year is different."

Except for the goal, which remains the same.

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It's been that way since the 1993-97 teams piled up five straight gold medals, setting the bar for every fuzzy-faced kid that followed.

Those silver medals in '99, '02, '03 and '04? Everybody just remembers they blew it in the final game.

Bronze in '00 and '01? Wasn't worth the TV time over the holidays.

Finish out of the medals completely -- which they haven't done in 10 years -- and you'll hear calls for a public inquiry into the state of our game.

Listening to Murray, the scout, the state of our game is just fine.

"There were about 75 real serious candidates for positions with the team," Murray said. "You're not dealing with good versus bad players. You're dealing with varying degrees of good."

But only one degree of success.

It's Hartsburg's job, now, to choose not only who skates the fastest and carries the biggest stick, but who won't mind lugging all that weight over to Eastern Europe.

"The key is that these kids coming in are going to be very hungry and they're going to put everything they have in hockey on the line next week to make this team," the coach said. "We'll pick the kids we think fit that mould and can bring back the gold for us."

Failure is simply not an option.


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