CALGARY - It's been a wild ride so far.
Just three weeks after congregating in Calgary for their selection camp, Canada's world junior hockey squad boarded a bus and returned to the Stampede City on New Year's Day, needing just two more triumphs to get their hands on the gold medals.
"Everybody is excited, but it was quiet -- guys were napping or listening to music or doing whatever," Team Canada captain Jaden Schwartz said just minutes after arriving at the Saddledome. "I napped, but everyone is excited to get to Calgary. When you walk in the rink, I kind of got the butterflies. It's going to be a fun few days here."
After accomplishing exactly what they wanted -- four straight roundrobin victories and a ticket to the semifinals -- in Edmonton, Team Canada made the three-hour trek south on the QEII Highway, a trip defenceman Ryan Murray characterized as "just like any normal bus ride."
That's been about the only normal feeling for this group of teenagers, which awaits the winner of Monday's quarterfinal clash between the Czech Republic and Russia.
"Obviously, in Edmonton, the crowd was through the roof. You couldn't have asked for much better," said Team Canada forward Mark Stone. "I don't think anything is going to change in Calgary. We're going to have a lot of support behind us "¶ When you skate out onto the ice, you've gotta take a look around and just see how happy everybody is. It really is unbelievable. The experience that we're getting and the opportunity that we have is something everyone is just trying to cherish."
"Everything has been pretty wild," Murray agreed. "It's pretty unbelievable. All the fans so far have been great. People are just cheering us on all the time. We walk into the hotel and people are cheering us on and saying 'Good luck.' It's been a great experience. It's pretty special."
On Sunday afternoon, Murray and his teammates arrived in Calgary with an opportunity to accomplish something special.
When organizers divvied up the schedule for the latest instalment of the world junior tournament, they determined Team Canada would complete its roundrobin slate at Rexall Place and then the action would shift to the Saddledome for the medal round.
The hosts left Edmonton with a perfect 4-0 record -- and plenty of positive momentum -- after wins over Finland, the Czech Republic, Denmark and the U.S.
Next up is a showdown with the Czechs or the Russians in Tuesday's semifinal at the Saddledome. The winner will shoot for gold in Thursday's final.
"The real tournament starts now for us," said Team Canada rearguard Brandon Gormley. "We're playing for keeps now."
As always seems the case with the annual holiday tournament, it's hard to believe it's gone so fast.
Team Canada announced its roster Dec. 14 and faced the Finns in an exhibition game five days later at the Saddledome.
Now, they're back in Calgary and anxious to prove they're a better team than when they left.
"You get more confidence as you go along and you get more comfortable," Schwartz said. "We've played four tournament games now and two other exhibition games (since facing Finland), so guys feel more comfortable and chemistry has obviously gotten better and our systems and everything else.
"We've come a long ways."
And the journey isn't over yet.
On Twitter: @SUNGilbertson