Pressure's on young Canucks

A fan flashes a sign during the World Junior Hockey Championship match between Team Canada and Team...

A fan flashes a sign during the World Junior Hockey Championship match between Team Canada and Team USA at Rexall Place in Edmonton, Alta., Dec. 31, 2011. (CODIE McLACHLAN/QMI Agency)

TERRY JONES, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 11:05 PM ET

CALGARY - There's never been a semifinal at the world junior with more pressure on Team Canada than this one.

Think about it.

With every year, the pressure grows on these Canadian kids. For 10 consecutive years Canada has managed to get to the gold medal game. Every year since the tournament went to a medal-round format, Canada has played in the gold medal game at home. Sooner or later it has to happen. Sooner or later a Canadian team is going to stumble in the get-to-the-gold-medal-game.

That pressure compounds every year. But there's a pressure added this year that hasn't been there before.

In all, there are 31 games in this tournament. Calgarians were required to buy ticket packages for 21 of the games, while the fans in Edmonton had a blast watching Canada play and win all four round-robin games.

Calgarians happily bought their packages with the anticipation of watching the ultimate 'I was there!' game of them all -- Canada playing for the gold medal.

If this team loses its first tournament game in Calgary, the semifinal Tuesday, and thus ends up in Thursday afternoon's bronze-medal game ...

That's the elephant in the Canadian dressing room that has never been there before.

"I don't think there's ever been this much pressure. Here, everything is built around the gold medal game in Calgary. You better hope Don Hay and his team do it," said Ottawa's Brian Kilrea, the most legendary of all junior hockey coaches, as he watched Team Canada practise without their flu-stricken coach on the ice.

"These people are hoping to see that gold medal game. To not get it, in these circumstances, will be disappointing a lot of people."

There's just no denying the pressure, which also includes Canada failing to win the gold medal games in Saskatoon two years ago and in Buffalo last year.

Killrea said the pressure grows every year.

"You see more now than ever," said the Hockey Hall of Famer who coached this team back in 1984.

"It's much, much more now than then. It was just starting back then. It was a lot later the pressure became second to only the Stanley Cup, and I'm not even sure it's second. There may be more pressure than the Stanley Cup.

"This is Canada. It's us against everybody."

Now the Olympics have trumped both the Stanley Cup and world junior, Kilrea says, but adds it's remarkable the pressure that is involved, considering we're talking about teenagers.

"It's not like other countries. They have the mentality of coming to win a medal. In Canada the pressure is enormous."

And if they lose, he says, hey, it's just U-20 sports. Nobody pays much notice.

The good news: as long as they all don't come down with the flu before game time, says Kilrea, these kids are more prepared to handle it now.

"Some of them were on NHL teams. That's pressure."

Hockey Canada spends three weeks preparing them for these 72 hours at the end of the tournament. And talking to these kids after practice Monday, they seemed to have their helmets screwed on straight.

"We're hoping to turn the pressure into excitement," said Freddie Hamilton.

"Edmonton saw us for four games. Edmonton was fantastic. We're hoping that Calgary fans try to one-up Edmonton fans and give us home-ice advantage to help lift us and keep us going," said Canada's latest national netminder, Scott Wedgewood.

"You know when you put on this jersey that there's going to be pressure. But there's also going to be unbelievable support which goes with it," he added.

You'd figure Calgary's organizing committee chairman, Jim Peplinski, would have more angst about this game than any he played since he was with the Flames winning the 1989 Stanley Cup final.

But he says there's only the one attitude for a player to have going into a pressure-packed game like this:

"You can't think about the outcome. You go in thinking about playing your best with the belief if you do that, you'll get the outcome you deserve."

Follow me on Twitter.com/sunterryjones

terry.jones@sunmedia.ca


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