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Canada takes talented but inexperienced team to World Junior tournament: Matt Cullen

Watching the World Junior Hockey Championships has become as much a Canadian holiday tradition, across the country, as opening presents on Christmas Day. Here's Matt Cullen's preview of the tournament.

Canada has hosted the tournament 13 times and has won a medal every time

Shane Bowers tries to score on goalie Michael DiPietro during first period action at the Q Centre in Colwood, B.C., on Friday, December 14, 2018. Both Bowers and DiPietro have cracked the roster for the Canadian Junior Hockey team. (Chad Hipolito/The Canadian Press)
Watching the World Junior Hockey Championships has become as much a Canadian holiday tradition, across the country, as opening presents on Christmas Day. Here's Matt Cullen's preview of the tournament.

Watching the World Junior Hockey Championships has become as much a Canadian holiday tradition, across the country, as opening presents on Christmas Day.

Sometimes your gifts are gold medal winners. Sometimes they're warm, bronze coloured socks — not exactly what you wanted but you might not hate them on a cold night in February. 

The tournament opens on Boxing Day with Canada playing Denmark in Vancouver and there's a streak going back to 1978 on the line. It's the 13th time Canada has hosted the tournament, starting in 1978 in Montreal and Quebec City, and Canada has won a medal in each of those 13 years.

Matt Cullen is a reporter for CBC Sports and also provides commentary for the OHL's Mississauga Steelheads. Cullen spoke with the CBC's Conrad Collaco about Canada's prospects at this year's tournament.

You can read an abridged and edited version of the interview or listen to the full audio interview by hitting the play button above.

Matt Cullen, CBC Sports 

Matt Cullen is a reporter for CBC Sports and is also a play-by-play commentator for the OHL's Mississauga Steelheads. (CBC Sports)

This year's tournament is in Victoria and Vancouver. What are some of the things you're watching for?

As usual this is an elite level group filled with players who will become household names in the NHL. The questions is, as always, can this team work well together as a group. Just like in Olympic hockey, other countries have caught up and Canada can no longer be considered the hands-down favourite like they were ten to fifteen years ago. If you look at the last nine years team Canada has only won the gold medal twice, last year in Buffalo and in 2015 in Toronto.

This year there is only one returning player, Maxime Comtois. He's a Ducks prospect and plays in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. We mentioned the OHL talent. Nine of the 22 players on Team Canada are from the OHL. Evan Bouchard of the London Knights, a first round pick, has already spent a lot of time in the NHL with the Oilers this year. Former Windsor Spitfire Michael DiPietro is the reigning OHL Goalie of the Year. He was recently traded to Ottawa. He is expected to be the starter over Ian Scott, a Toronto Maple Leafs prospect. MacKenzie Entwistle of the Hamilton Bulldogs is on the team. He has some big game experience helping the Bulldogs to their OHL championship over Sault Ste. Marie.   

Keep an eye out for Alexis Lafreniere, the ninth youngest player to ever play for Canada at the World Junior Championships. That puts him in an elite group including Connor McDavid, Wayne Gretzky, Sidney Crosby and Eric Lindros. He'll be a name that fans of Team Canada will get to know pretty well. 
Canada's Alexis Lafreniere (11) hoists the Hlinka Gretzky Cup following the Hlinka Gretzky Cup gold medal game against Sweden, in Edmonton on Saturday, August 11, 2018. The 17-year-old will be Team Canada's youngest player at the world junior hockey championship next week. (Codie McLachlan/ Canadian Press)

You mentioned the goaltending. It seems that is always the pressure point for Team Canada. If Canada wins, they are the heroes. If Canada losses, they are the ones shouldering the blame. What do expect this year from Canada's goalies?

Michael DiPietro is pegged to be the early starter over Ian Scott. Scott plays for the Prince Albert Raiders of the Western Hockey League. DiPietro is a Vancouver Canucks prospect and Scott is a Leafs prospect. DiPietro has big game experience. He won the Memorial Cup in 2017 with the Windsor Spitfires. He was cut from Team Canada last year and he was really disappointed by that. This tournament is all about redemption for him. He wanted to make this team so badly. Throughout the year he put little reminders on his phone saying 'work harder' and 'I got cut from the junior camp last year and I have to find another level to my game.' These messages would pop up periodically throughout the year.
(DiPietro's) really a leader with our team, a leader in the room, a leader on the ice in practice and he's just a great kid.- Tim Hunter, Team Canada head coach

The head coach for Team Canada, Tim Hunter, was an assistant last year, so he got a pretty good look at DiPietro. This year Hunter says DiPietro is ready. Every year it seems that goaltending is the question. Can the goaltender play well in such a limited amount of time? That will be the challenge for Scott and DiPietro. 

Tim Hunter. Team Canada head coach, talks about his confidence in goalie Michael DiPietro.

This year's tournament is in Victoria and Vancouver, so there will be plenty of red and white in the stands this year with the tournament in Canada. Will that add some extra pressure? 

We shouldn't forget that at 17,18 and 19-years-old, these are young hockey players. In the last four home tournaments for Canada the team has only won the gold medal once. That was in 2015 in Toronto. Coach Hunter recognizes that there will be pressure but prefers to use words like 'opportunity' and 'privilege.'  

These guys all grew up dreaming of putting on that Hockey Canada jersey on Boxing Day and playing for the World Junior team. They've been dreaming of this opportunity for a long time.- Tim Hunter, Team Canada head coach

Here are a couple dates to circle on your calendar. The tournament officially opens up on Boxing Day, Dec. 26 against Denmark. On New Year's Eve the Canadians play Russia. That will be a lot of fun. The United States is always a good squad. They're in the other pool, though. If Canada does play the U.S. it will be in the knockout round. Finland has also won the tournament twice in the last five years. A lot of these countries have good, young hockey players and will compete with Canada. 

This tournament has been held thirteen times in Canada going back to the 1970s. Canada has won a medal each time. There is a home ice advantage for sure. 
Tim Hunter, Team Canada head coach talks about his payers are ready to face the pressure that comes with playing in front of Canadian fans.
Team Canada head coach Tim Hunter talks with players during selection camp at the Q Centre in Victoria, B.C., on Tuesday, December 11, 2018. (Chad Hipolito/The Canadian Press)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Conrad Collaco is a CBC News producer for CBC Hamilton with extensive experience in online, television and radio news. Follow him on Twitter at @ConradCollaco, or email him at conrad.collaco@cbc.ca.

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