Canada's Drake Batherson seizing the spotlight in Buffalo
Originally overlooked by team brass, 19-year-old leads the way to championship game
Drake Batherson wore a wide grin as he sat on Canada's bench and glanced at the white-taped blade of his magical stick.
The 19-year-old forward had just returned to the bench midway through the second period after he scored his second of three goals in Canada's 7-2 semifinal victory against the Czech Republic at the world junior tournament in Buffalo on Thursday.
Canada will play Sweden, which defeated the United States 4-2 in the first semifinal, in the gold-medal final on Friday night.
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Canada has been successful in this tournament because of its balance up front, talented blue line and strong goaltending. But you have to love the Drake and the late-bloomer story he's authored leading up and through this tournament.
Batherson has scored a team-leading seven goals in six games, a total that has him tied for the tournament lead with American Kiefer Bellows and Filip Zadina of the Czech Republic.
Batherson's magical stick actually has scored eight times. In the quarter-final outing against Switzerland on Tuesday, teammate Jordan Kyrou came to the bench after he lost his stick, grabbed Batherson's and then went on to score a goal later that shift.
Batherson was born in Fort Wayne, Ind., began playing hockey in Germany and was raised in the Nova Scotia village of New Minas.
Comes from hockey family
He comes from a hockey family. His father, Norm, was good enough to play five seasons in the AHL and IHL, including with the Fort Wayne Comets, before winding down his career with eight more years in Germany. Younger sister Mae has committed to play at Syracuse University next year.
Mae, Norm and his wife, Deeann, have been in Buffalo in the good times. Here was a kid who wasn't chosen until the sixth round of the 2015 QMJHL draft and didn't make the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles until last year as an 18-year-old because he was too small.
He was overlooked in his first year of NHL draft eligibility and wasn't picked until the fourth round last June when the Ottawa Senators selected him with the 121st pick of the 2017 entry draft. But he wasn't on the Canadian junior team's radar and failed to garner an invite to the Canadian junior team summer camp.
A six-inch growth spurt over two years helped get the six-foot-two, 188-pound Batherson noticed. He scored 22 times in his rookie QMJHL season and scored 17 more goals in 24 games before he departed Cape Breton for the Canadian junior selection camp last month.
Another interesting twist to Batherson's breakout in Buffalo was he had to deal with being traded the other day by Cape Breton to the league-leading Blainville-Boisbriand Armada.
Against the Czechs, Canada found itself trailing for the first time in the tournament when it fell behind 1-0 six minutes in. But the power play got the Canadians rolling. It has clicked at an ungodly 13-for-23 — a 56.5 per cent success rate — through six games.
First, it was Sam Steel of Sherwood Park, Alta., who scored with the man advantage a few shifts after Zadina scored.
Then Batherson went to work. His power-play goals late in the first period and midway through the second period pushed Canada to a 3-1 lead. Both goals were scored on similar players: a waist-high point shot from defenceman Cale Makar and redirect from Batherson in front.
Makar a pleasant surprise
Makar is another Canadian junior who has opened eyes in Buffalo. He's gone from playing for the Brooks Bandits of the Alberta Junior Hockey League to the University of Massachusetts-Lowell to the Canadian junior team in eight months. Like Batherson, Makar has been a pleasant surprise in Buffalo.
But the Swedes will be Canada's biggest test yet. They are the only team to have a perfect 6-0 record. Against the U.S., they built a 4-0 lead thanks to a power-play goal and back-to-back shorthanded goals in the third period and then hung on.
The Swedes are led by Vancouver Canucks draft pick Elias Petterson and Lias Andersson, a New York Rangers prospect. They also have dynamic 17-year-old defenceman Rasmus Dahlin, the consensus first overall pick for the 2018 NHL draft.
Canada will need more than Batherson's magical stick on its side against Sweden.