BANFF - It was two thirds of the way through a demanding practice with a punishing pace when the young man expected to be Canada’s first-line centre went into the boards in the corner.
When Mark Scheifele, who also went down earlier in practice, was helped off the ice, he was in excruciating pain and appeared to be holding his wrist.
While the players were sucking wind from their first practice at altitude, there seemed to be an extra gasp.
This is a team believed to have a lot of donut lines — no centres — and if there’s one guy they don’t want to lose, it’s this guy.
But he was OK.
“The first time I went down, I lost an edge. I might need my skates sharpened. The second time I was winded by a stick stuck in my sternum. I’m fine.”
And that made this a good-news, good-news day for the team, which is hiding out here in the Canadian Rockies for a week before heading to Edmonton to open the world junior hockey championship on Boxing Day.
Before Scheifele went down, Jonathan Huberdeau left the ice after 20 minutes skating by himself and then another 20 minutes doing drills with the team.
While Hueberdeau left the ice halfway through practice for the training room, it was with a big smile on his face, matched by the expressions of his teammates who are trying to win gold for Canada after two tournaments with silver.
If there’s another guy Canada can’t afford to lose for the tournament, it’s this guy.
“I feel great. It felt great to be back on the ice. I had no pain at all,” said Scheifele’s projected left winger on the top line, along with Anaheim Ducks’ loaner Devante Smith-Pelly.
Huberdeau broke his foot playing with the Saint John Sea Dogs and has been out since Nov. 5. Other than for the team picture, this was his first day back on the ice with a team.
“My conditioning isn’t there yet and I knew it wouldn’t be. But I not only skated for the first time in five weeks, I skated hard and it really did feel great,” said Hueberdeau.
Don Hay was looking like he was about to break out in some sort of “Hills-Are-Alive-With-the-Sound-of-Music” number.
“It’s great timing. It was exciting to have him in the group today,” he said.
Canada took a gamble that Huberdeau would be able to make it back for the Dec. 22 (vs. Switzerland in Red Deer) and Dec. 23 (vs. Sweden in Edmonton) pre-tournament games.
Other than the goaltenders, you could make a case that Huberdeau and Scheifele are the two key players in this tournament for Team Canada.
The No. 3 pick in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft by the Florida Panthers, Huberdeau has the highest profile. But of all the players here who didn’t make it with the NHL teams in training camp, it was Winnipeg’s seventh selection in the first round, Scheifele, who made the biggest buzz.
“He brings a high-end skill set,” said Hay of the Barrie Colt. “He’s very creative when he’s got the puck.”
When you go as high as these two in the draft, you have hopes of playing in the NHL, and there was a point there in early October when Scheifele and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins of the Edmonton Oilers were both looking to be about 50-50 to stick with the big club.
“To be put in the same sentence with Nugent-Hopkins was an honour,” Scheifele said of the coverage back then.
Nugent-Hopkins made it impossible for the Oilers to send him back to junior. Scheifele, while he scored his first NHL goal against the Toronto Maple Leafs, didn’t, and was back in Barrie after seven games. Nugent-Hopkins is tied for eighth in NHL scoring with 13 goals and 20 assists for 33 points. Scheifele is tied for 21st with 13 goals and 23 assists in the Ontario Hockey League.
There’s a big disappointment to overcome, but the upside of it is that you get to play for Team Canada at the world junior.
“Winnipeg told me that making this team and playing well for Canada in this tournament should definitely be my goal.
“It’s been unbelievable so far. It’s been one of the best things that ever happened to me.”
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