Picking up torch

Seattle Thunderbirds goalie Calvin Pickard, one of three Manitobans trying to crack Canada's roster...

Seattle Thunderbirds goalie Calvin Pickard, one of three Manitobans trying to crack Canada's roster for the 2011 World Junior Hockey Championship, to be held in Buffalo, N.Y.

PAUL FRIESEN, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 8:05 PM ET

Players like James Patrick, Mike Keane and Theo Fleury lit the torch in the early days. Jonathan Toews grabbed it and poured gasoline all over it a few years ago.

Manitobans have a long, illustrious history playing for Canada in the World Junior Hockey Championship.

But over the last few years the representation from our province has been rather bare-bones: one player in each of the last two tournaments, none three years ago.

Cody Eakin, Quinton Howden and Calvin Pickard will try to change that in a few weeks.

The three Western Hockey League standouts have received invitations to the nerve-buster that is Team Canada’s final selection camp, Dec. 12-15, in Toronto.

With the actual tournament in Buffalo, this promises to be another one of those cross-border events, with Canadians filling the rink for “home” games — just like in Grand Forks, six years ago.

“I was at almost every game,” Eakin, who was 13 at the time, recalled about the ’05 World Junior, which produced gold for Canada. “It was pretty fun there.”

Not nearly as much fun as it’d be in Buffalo if the Winnipegger is wearing the red-and-white jersey on the bench instead of in the stands.

Adding to the urgency: Eakin, a 27-point man (in 24 games) for the WHL’s Swift Current Broncos, was a final cut at the selection camp a year ago, something that’s bugged him ever since.

“It did,” he told the Sun, Monday. “I was bitter being cut last year. Going back for the camp in Newfoundland this summer, I felt like I had something to prove and I think I did it there. Hopefully, I can do the same thing when I go to Toronto.”

Among the forwards Eakin will be competing with is Quinton Howden, an Oak Bank product who throws his 6-foot-3 frame around for the WHL’s Moose Jaw Warriors.

“I’ve been looking forward to this moment for a long time,” Howden said. “Been dreaming about making this team. You watch it as a young kid... I’ve done what I had to do to prove I can be there.”

What Howden’s done is prove he can play the scorer’s role or the checker’s, depending what Team Canada wants from him.

You get the impression he’d sharpen skates if he had to.

“You look at that list, it’s an honour to be in a group with a bunch of those guys,” he said. “It’s something pretty special to be able to represent your country and throw that jersey on.”

For Pickard, a goalie with Seattle of the WHL, the list of Manitobans who’ve suited up for Canada includes his older brother, Chet, also a goalie, who helped Canada win gold in Ottawa two years ago.

“My brother got the chance, and he made the most of it,” Pickard said. “To follow in his footsteps and get the gold medal as well is definitely a special opportunity.”

First things, first. Pickard will be one of four goalies battling for two spots.

Can’t remember the last time a Manitoban grabbed the No. 1 job in goal for this tournament. Trevor Kidd, maybe, at the ’92 event.

Chet Pickard played two games at the ’09 tourney, fellow Winnipegger Rejean Beauchemin just one in ’05.

“It’s going to be something else,” Pickard said. “I’m sure it’s going to be a big Canadian crowd. I have to take care of business in camp and from there just do whatever it takes to win the gold medal.”

These players have all been drafted by NHL teams. But ask them where this opportunity ranks, and they all say the same thing: at the top.

“I can’t compare it to anything,” Pickard said. “The World Junior is the ultimate tournament that everyone dreams of playing in. It’s going to be an opportunity of a lifetime.”

The torch awaits.

Contact Paul at paul.friesen@sunmedia.ca or 632-2788.

Twitter@friesensunmedia


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