EDMONTON -- As one final act of togetherness before the world junior championship would begin, the Canadian juniors used to assemble in a room and dedicate their efforts to an individual who made a difference in their lives.
On occasion the meeting would become emotional and turn into a tear-fest. Like the time before the 1997 tournament in Geneva, when defenceman Jesse Wallin told his teammates the story of his father Brian, who battled depression all his life, and committed suicide in 1994.
Hockey Canada officials decided to do away with this practice nine years ago, when Jordin Tootoo suited up for the 2003 world junior in Halifax. They didn't want to put Tootoo in a situation in which he had to relive what happened to his older brother Terence, who took his own life at age 22 that summer after he was arrested for drunk driving.
This year's Canadian captain Jaden Schwartz doesn't need to tell his teammates nor those who know his story about the person he has dedicated the 2012 world junior championship to. That special someone is his sister Mandi, a former Yale hockey player who passed away last April at age 23 after a 16-month battle with acute myeloid leukemia.
"She's always on my mind," Schwartz said. "You want to win this tournament for your teammates, your family, your friends and for Canada. But I want to win for Mandi, too. She was a big part of my life and she still is a big part of my life."
When Canadian coach Don Hay selected his captain earlier this month, it was an easy decision to tap the 19-year-old Schwartz as the choice. Few teenagers have demonstrated the sort of character he has in dealing with his sister's illness and the disappointment in last year's tournament when he was knocked out of action after he fractured his left ankle in Canada's second game.
Schwartz, a 2010 first round pick of the St. Louis Blues, stayed with the Canadian team for the rest of the tournament and like the rest of the country was stunned to watch his teammates collapse in the final 20 minutes of the gold-medal final against the Russians.
But unlike his teammates, who returned to their respective teams the next day, Schwartz returned home to Saskatchewan with his father Rick to spend time with Mandi, who had suffered a third relapse in her fight against leukemia. He presented her with his silver medal, but it would be the last time he would spend time with his sister.
"Things happen for a reason," Schwartz said. "If I don't get injured, I don't get to see my sister."
Before the tournament, Mandi sent a video message to inspire her brother and that message is still on his laptop for viewing when Schwartz needs to see it.
After seeing his sister, Schwartz returned to Colorado College to rejoin his older brother Rylan on the Tigers hockey team. Schwartz was healthy enough to begin playing again in early February. But eight days after Colorado College were eliminated in the West regional by Michigan, the Schwartz brothers found out their sister had passed away on Apr. 3.
"What impresses me the most about Jaden is his character," Colorado College coach Scott Owens said. "He has unbelievable fabric as a human being. He personifies humbleness. His maturity allows him to be a confident leader while not being arrogant. He fits into the team concept and understands the dynamics of the team first. You would not know he is an NHL first rounder because he is more interested in what other people bring to the team. He relates to everyone in a personable way.
"What ultimately impresses me is the character of the family. The strength of the family and what the Schwartz's word means. They have a lot of integrity and they live their lives based on their own convictions. Jaden is a product of Rick and [his wife] Carol who believe in education. Rick and Carol sent their three children to Yale and Colorado College."
Before Jaden Schwartz set off to join his brother at Colorado College he developed his game in the famed Notre Dame program in Wilcox, Sask. In his final year of midget at Notre Dame, he broke the school scoring records of Vincent Lecavalier and Brad Richards with a 39-goal, 111-point season in 2007-08.
But even though he was tempted on following his friends to the junior ranks of the WHL (he was drafted by the Tri-City Americans), Schwartz made good on his commitment to attend Colorado College.
"Even though Jaden is a sophomore within our program he has shown that he has the tools to be a great leader," Owens said.
"He is very strong in his convictions. He never wavered from his commitment to attend Colorado College. Despite being under a lot of pressure to play major junior jockey and watching a lot of his close friends head in that direction, Jaden has taken full advantage of living in Colorado Springs and attending Colorado College. He has helped make himself a better person and he has helped make our program stronger."
Owens recalled how impressed he was when Schwartz returned to school after suffering his ankle injury at the world junior and his visit with his sister.
"He was positive and supportive to his teammates and helped a lot of the players out as a fourth coach," Owens said.
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