TORONTO - This could be the coaching season of Dave Cameron’s hockey life, with the opportunity for him to jump from barely known to household.
All he has to do is win. Twice.
Win the world junior championship. Win the Memorial Cup. Pull off the great double that is before him — and who knows what may come next?
This could be the best and worst of coaching times for the Team Canada Junior boss and the head man with the awkwardly named Mississauga St. Mike’s Majors. It all depends how it turns out. The Team Canada appointment comes with the proviso: Win or else. And there is no else. The way the Memorial Cup now works, the host team in the national junior championship is known before the season begins.
So Cameron is going to the World Juniors in Buffalo, playing host to the Memorial Cup in May, and all he has on the line is his reputation, and maybe his future.
“I relish the challenge,” Cameron said Monday as the 39-training camp players for Team Canada were named. “I’d be lying if I said my objective isn’t to get to the National Hockey League as a coach but that said, there’s very few jobs available and such a small window. I coach the way I tell my players to play — you work hard every day and the results will be there in the end.”
If anyone understands the long road, it has to a guy like him, who has bounced around so much of his hockey life. He was a draft pick of the New York Islanders way back when they were still relevant, but never played a game for the four-time champions. He played the last season of the Colorado Rockies, after Don Cherry was fired, and the first two seasons of the New Jersey Devils, about the time Wayne Gretzky called them Mickey Mouse. He kicked around a couple more American Hockey League seasons: the beginning of teammates’ careers like Gary Roberts and Mike Vernon coinciding with his last full season as a player. The coaching carousel he has been on has seen him change addresses at least seven times in 15 years.
He’s no youngster, but a young-looking 52. This isn’t just his shot to do something beyond the scope of his own time, his own team. He’s in charge of Canada’s national Christmas vacation habit. These are our Bowl games, our three-week obsession with a level of hockey we normally ignore. This is Cameron’s chance to matter. This isn’t just a roll of the dice. He’s holding the dice and a deck of cards and he’s the dealer here, playing with house money.
All he has to do is win.
Maybe then, when the Ottawa Senators are looking for someone to replace Cory Clouston — which is inevitable — maybe Cameron, who has worked long and hard for Sens owner, Eugene Melynyk, will get the call.
“There are no surprises going into this tournament about what the expectations are,” said Cameron. “It’s win or else. The reality of it is, it’s no longer Canada’s divine right to win this tournament.” That’s the reality: Whether people want to hear that is anyone matter entirely.
It doesn’t really matter how you win so long as you do. The difference, as we’ve seen in recent years, can be infinitessimal. What if Sidney Crosby doesn’t score and an American does in Vancouver? What if Jonathan Toews hadn’t eventually scored on the shootout in Sweden? What if Canada hadn’t scored with four seconds to go against Russia with the team Pat Quinn coached and Cameron assisted?
It’s going to come down to two-three key plays — it always does,” said Cameron. His message to the players when he first meets with them will be simple. “This is hard. We’re going to put that right on the table. This is a hard tournament to win.”
And what he learned, winning both gold and silver as an assistant coach? “Winning’s great. Losing sucks. It’s a game of mistakes. The first time I coach a game without mistakes, I’m going to quit. Because it’s never been done.”
Cameron knows what he’s in for. Sleepness nights. Endless second guessing. And the difficulty ahead of breaking some hearts. Those who weren’t named to the camp roster Monday are already shattered. Now he gets a short training camp to turn 39 kids into a 22-man team.
“How much sleep do you get?” Cameron asked. “You don’t ... When you get down it, it’s a bunch of Game 7s. You have all that pressure. The key is to have enough so that it’s healthy for the kids, but not too much, so the kids don’t tighten up. You have to deflect a lot of that pressure.”
He learned that much from working with Pat Quinn, who in his words “had the team in the palm of his hand...i’ve never heard a man speak so eloquently to a team.” Now it’s his turn. With everything on the line.