Schwartz named captain for Canadian juniors

Hockey Canada announced that returnee Jaden Schwartz will be the captain of the team that will try and recapture gold at the world junior hockey championships.

18 of 22 players new to team that blew 3-goal lead to Russia in 2011 final

Captain Jaden Schwartz, front, is one of four Team Canada players with previous world junior experience. But some wonder if the Canadians have enough offensive depth to win a gold medal. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

Jaden Schwartz played through pain at last year's world junior hockey championships, before having to watch from the sidelines.

This time, the 19-year-old winger from Wilcox, Sask., will be looking to set the tone throughout the tournament as Canadian captain.

Schwartz is one of four players on this year's team that had to settle for silver at the 2011 world junior tournament in Buffalo, N.Y.

But Schwartz wasn't able to finish that tournament. He fractured his left ankle during Canada's second game, yet still contributed a goal and two assists in a 7-2 win over the Czech Republic.

Schwartz didn't play another game after that though and watched the gold-medal game from the sidelines. Canada led 3-0 heading into the third period, but Russia exploded for five unanswered goals to take the title.

"Last year was tough, obviously getting hurt and then that third period against Russia," Schwartz said. "You try to forget last ear, but at the same time you want to learn from it.

"This year is a whole new group of guys, new faces, new team and everything like that. There's enough motivation just being here.  We're all here to win gold and that's the bottom line."

Schwartz seems a solid choice as captain.

The St. Louis Blues prospect seems older than 19, perhaps because he has a perspective on life that his teammates don't.

His older sister Mandi, a hockey player at Yale, died April 3 of leukemia at the age of 23. She was fighting for her life at home in Wilcox while Schwartz was with the Canadian team in Buffalo.

When Schwartz arrived at the Regina airport after the tournament, Mandi was there to meet him and Schwartz hung his silver medal around her neck.

"Last year was tough, me getting injured and obviously more important with Mandi. She was pretty sick at that time," Schwartz said. "Last year was very, very difficult and it was a hard time for all of us.

"It was the hardest thing I had to go through and probably one of  the hardest things I'll ever go through. It's very difficult, but family and friends get you through times like that and thankfully they're always there for me."

Goaltender Mark Visentin, another second-year player on the Canadian team, says Schwartz is the ideal man for the job of captain.

"I think he's a tremendous leader and he's definitely a person I look up to," the goalie said.

While captains are expected to be pillars of strength, Schwartz has also demonstrated people-management skills.

During selection camp, his roommate was 17-year-old defenceman Mathew Dumba of the Red Deer Rebels. When the phone rang in their room early in the morning Dec. 14, Dumba was devastated to learn he'd been cut.

Schwartz told Dumba that Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, the first overall pick in this year's NHL draft, was released from the Canadian junior team last year and the year before that it was Tyler Seguin, the No. 2 pick in the draft, who didn't make the team.

Schwartz pointed out those two players went on to do great things right away in their careers. Dumba said that made him feel better.

"I just tried to help him out as much as I could," Schwartz said. "Seguin and Nugent-Hopkins were two guys that popped into my mind where the same things happened to them and they've done great things ever since. I just told him to look at that."

Schwartz, five-foot-10 and 190 pounds, was a first-round pick (14th overall) of the St. Louis Blues in 2010. He and his brother Rylan, 22, both play NCAA hockey at Colorado College.

Schwartz led the Tigers in scoring as a freshman last season, despite missing six weeks with that fractured ankle. His 1.57 points per game was the highest among freshman nationally.

He ranks second in team scoring behind Rylan this season with four goals and 16 assists in 11 games.

Schwartz moves quickly with the puck in and out of traffic. He forces turnovers by the opposition and forces opposing players into taking penalties because of his speed and relentless pressure. Schwartz says he and the Blues discussed whether he should attend their training camp in September or return to Colorado College for his sophomore year.

"In the end, we felt coming back for another year would be most beneficial for me," Schwartz said.

Defenceman Brandon Gormley of Murray River, P.E.I., and forwards Brett Connolly of Prince George, B.C., Quinton Howden of Oak Bank, Man., and Devante Smith-Pelly of Toronto will serve as alternates. Connolly and Howden are also returning veterans.

Smith-Pelly and Connolly have been loaned from NHL clubs Anaheim and Tampa Bay, respectively. Defenceman Gormley plays for the Moncton Wildcats, while Howden is a Moose Jaw Warriors forward.

Schwartz's demeanour off the ice and his play on it will set the tone for a Canadian team trying to reclaim gold after two straight years of silver.

"That's what we're all here for is to win gold, but there's a process in doing that. It's a long journey to get there," he said.

"Obviously to do it for Canada and for the team and for Mandi, that'd be pretty special."

High expectations

Canada opens the 2012 world junior tournament Sunday in Edmonton against Finland (1:30 p.m. MT), a dark horse in the race for gold.

Canadian teams have reached the final of this tournament every year for the last decade and won half of them. Fair or not, Canadians have come to depend on seeing their country in the championship game.

So the biggest challenge Canada's 2012 edition faces is avoiding a sense of entitlement in this tournament.

"There's no rule that we deserve gold every year," Canadian head coach Don Hay said. "Other countries want it too and there's other countries that believe they play the right way."

After a run of five straight gold, Canada lost in overtime to the U.S. in the 2010 final in Saskatoon and spectacularly collapsed in the 2011 final in Buffalo, N.Y., when Russia scored five unanswered goals in the third period to win 5-3.

But to call Canada's campaign this year "redemption" is unfair because 18 of the 22 players on this year's team did not play in Buffalo.

Canada plays its Pool B games against Finland, the Czech Republic, Denmark and the U.S. in Edmonton's Rexall Place. Defending champion Russia, Sweden, Switzerland, Slovakia and Latvia play Pool A games in Calgary's Scotiabank Saddledome.

All medal-round and relegation games are in Calgary. The top team in each pool earns byes to the semifinals Jan. 3. The second and third seeds cross over and meet in quarter-finals Jan. 2. The bronze-medal and championship games are Jan. 5.

Does the Canadian team have enough offensive depth? Three centres eligible to play for Canada remained in the NHL: Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Sean Couturier and Ryan Johansen.

Jonathan Huberdeau has hardly played since breaking a bone in his foot on Nov. 7. Canada needs the big left-winger to get his game back quickly. Winger Quinton Howden, one of four returning players from the silver-medal squad, has been hampered by concussion-like symptoms since selection camp.

Hay, who coached Canada to gold in 1995. chose forwards based on their abilities to excel in all facets of the game and switch roles quickly. Hay believes he has the right balance up front.

"We have a lot of offence," he insisted. "We have some very talented individuals that can create offence."

Canada's strength should be its big and talented defence. Five of the seven are first-round selections of NHL clubs and Ryan Murray of the Everett Silvertips should hear his name called early in the 2012 draft.

Canada's key game of the preliminary round is a Dec. 31 showdown against the U.S.