Team West anxious to branch out

PAUL FRIESEN, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 9:30 AM ET

When you look at the recent success of Canadian hockey, there’s no denying the positive effects of a little flag-waving.

Oh sure, we love our club hockey as much as anyone.

But throw patriotism into the mix and amazing things can, and do, happen.

The guy calling the shots for Team West at the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge is hoping some of that good, old fashioned “us against them” will be the secret ingredient for his prairie pucksters.

Let’s face it, a team of Manitoba and Saskatchewan kids taking on a team of Alberta and B.C. kids, as Team West did in its first game, doesn’t exactly rekindle memories of international glories past.

In fact, it’s not much different from the day jobs of some of these 16-year-olds.

“Playing Pacific, a lot of players know each other from the Western League,” Garth Mitchell, head coach of Team West, was saying, Thursday.

“But from this point forward, the teams and players we’re going to play are all new and that’s going to bring another level of excitement and intensity to the players.”

In other words, bring on the Czechs (Friday, 7:30 p.m., MTS Iceplex), so we can have a different nation’s flag to get our blood boiling.

It’s the hockey equivalent of waving a red handkerchief at a bull.

And Mitchell, his team already in a must-win after an opening-night loss, plans to use it.

“When you’re playing Canadian flag against Canadian flag, it’s tough to swing the patriotic angle at it,” he said. “But playing the Czechs and Slovaks, we’re representing Canada.”

Sure, they had an exhibition game against the rival Americans the other night. But they were still getting to know each other at the time.

Now that the introductions are over, they can get to work on putting a hate on for an opponent that isn’t also wearing the Maple Leaf.

“Definitely,” Team West forward Brendan Leipsic said. “Not knowing the other opposition very much, they’re more of a skilled team, I’m thinking. That’s the way the Czechs play.”

A perfect match for the in-your-face physical style usually preferred by us hosers.

The way Leipsic sees it, this event doesn’t really begin to gain that international flavour until it’s steeped in a foreign marinade.

“It makes it feel kind of like the Olympics, or one of the higher tournaments,” Leipsic said.

Like the World Juniors, for example, which every kid here dreams about.

“It’s pretty cool representing your region or country against arch rivals, like the Czechs or U.S.,” the Winnipegger concluded.

Team West will close out the round robin against Ontario, then Slovakia. But those last two won’t mean a thing without a win over the Czech Republic.

That 5-2 slipup against Team Pacific the other night has left the host team with no margin for error.

“We’ve got to run the table now, if we want to get into a playoff game,” Leipsic figured. “It’s definitely a big challenge ahead of us, but we’re up for it.”

Only two teams from each pool advance to the medal round, so a 3-1 mark wouldn’t be a bad idea.

“We let one slide away from us,” Brandon-born Brayden Cuthbert said. “We’re going to have to win the rest of our games. So everybody’s going to be going 100%.”

The crowd will probably be more jacked, too. The cheers a little louder, the Canadian flags waving a little more urgently.

Most important, though, the look in the eyes of the players, which their coach says changes significantly when they’re up against another country.

“That’s something to really feed off,” Mitchell said. “That level of enthusiasm can be generated into better play on the ice.”

It usually does.


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