Playing for Canada means the world to Ellis

STEVE SIMMONS, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 4:31 PM ET

BUFFALO -- Ryan Ellis looked down at the logo on his Canadian jersey, his eyes examining the red and white flag, his expression saying almost as much as his words.

This is the end of a long and spectacular run for the Team Canada captain. No matter what happens in the gold medal game of the world junior hockey championship Wednesday night, Ellis will wear the Canadian colours for the 30th different time, on his sixth national team, in search of his fifth gold medal.

When he pulls the jersey over his head, he admits he will pause for just a moment and appreciate the significance of the moment because he doesn't know if or when he will ever wear the Team Canada colours again.

"I hope this isn't the end," the Canadian captain said. "I love this and want to keep doing this. Obviously, there are still Olympics and I'd love to play in that one day and maybe (a world championship), but as for right now, it's the last one for a while. I know that. I feel that. It'd be nice to go out with a bang."

Ellis is the new generation of Canadian hockey player, growing up through the national program of excellence. The goal used to be make the NHL or bust. With today's kids, it's play in the world junior first, play for Canada, make the NHL, and then play for Canada again at the Olympics. They grew up differently than we did. This is Canada's 10th consecutive time playing for gold in this tournament. They have watched Team Canada win Olympic gold medals in Salt Lake City and Vancouver. They almost assume and accept that dominance is part of who we are. It is all tied up around country and national teams and with the Canadian junior ethic being "win or else."

Ellis certainly has done his sharing of winning. Two Memorial Cup championship teams. An under-17 world championship. Two under-18 world championships. This is his third world junior event -- his third time playing for gold -- making him just about the most decorated Canadian junior player in history.

Last year, the Canadians were beaten by a very strong American team in a superb gold medal game. This year, the performance of the tournament may have been Monday night, when Team Canada obliterated an American team that was supposed to be superior. On Wednesday, Ellis plays for first place against the oxymoronic, resilient Russians.

"I feel old," he said jokingly, when someone called him a teenager and then he pointed out he left that behind two days ago. But this kind of play, this kind of winning, this national team thing, never gets old.

Not for him. Not for so many of his teammates who have grown up through the national team camps and under-17 and under-18 tournaments and all that builds to this frenetic place. This tournament, in truth, is really misnamed. Most people call it the world juniors. But really it is a 19-year-old championship. You don't get here and succeed first time around. Few like Ellis get here three times -- only six players before him. But the second year, in his case the third year, makes it look like men playing against boys. Brayden Schenn has had that look throughout the tournament up front for Canada. Ellis and Jared Cowen have supplied the maturity on the back end.

"You want to see your kids come out of this tournament with the best experience possible and with your team winning," said coach Dave Cameron, who has been with the Canadian team for all three of Ellis' appearances. "If I look back at my three years (of involvement): The first year we were in Ottawa, P.K. Subban had been the seventh defenceman the year before but he was real good in Ottawa, chewed up a lot of minutes; Alex Pietrangelo struggled in that tournament, but he was the best defenceman in Saskatoon the following year. Last year, Cowen struggled in Saskatoon and he has been real good here. That extra year is huge."

Jared Cowen understands. He, too, admits to being reflective about his time in Canadian red. This is his second and last world junior event. Twice he played under-17. He would have played under-18 had he not torn up a knee. He also wonders if this is the end of some kind of personal era for him.

"I love this team, I love this tournament," he said. "We've been together a month. You don't want to leave these guys. We've been through a lot. You become good friends. When the tournament's over, it's not a lot of very fun time.

"That's why we have to win. We have to do it." He wants something to remember, for life, forever.

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