PLYMOUTH, MICH.—Olivier Rodrigue is fine with the weight of a hockey nation resting on his lean shoulders.
In truth, it’s a responsibility he’s always craved.
“I embrace the challenge,” said the 19-year-old goalie from Chicoutimi, Que. “I want to be the guy saving everyone.”
Rodrigue is one of four Canadian netminders hoping to turn heads at this week’s World Junior Summer Showcase in suburban Detroit. The event is an opportunity for Hockey Canada’s management and coaching staff to not only evaluate, but get to know a group of 37 players that will provide the bulk of the country’s roster at the 2020 world junior hockey championship.
And with no returning goalies from last year’s team, the ones taking part in the practice sessions and games against the United States, Finland and Sweden know jobs are there for the taking in an open competition ahead of December’s main selection camp.
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“I have to bring everything,” added Rodrigue, selected 62nd overall by Edmonton at the 2018 NHL draft. “It forces us to be at our best.”
Canada was backstopped by Michael DiPietro and Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Ian Scott at last year’s world juniors in Vancouver and Victoria — an event that saw the hosts finish a stunning sixth following a late collapse against eventual-champion Finland in the under-20 tournament’s quarterfinals.
“It’s very motivating just to be here,” said Colten Ellis of Port Hawkesbury, N.S. “I want to prove to them I’m able and capable of playing on this team.”
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Canadian goalie coach Jason LaBarbera said elite skills are one thing, but getting things right between the ears is equally important in a short tournament.
Unlike an NHL scout trying to project a career 10 years down the road, he needs his No. 1 guy razor-sharp for 11 days in the Czech Republic.
“Your starter has to play five or six really good games,” said LaBarbera, a veteran of 16 pro seasons. “That’s one thing about being a Canadian goalie — you’re never expected to steal one.
“It’s about making big saves at the right time.”
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Hockey Canada works on the mental side with all its players from a young age, but focuses heavily on the goalies in hopes they can turn the page quickly when the stakes are high.
If they can’t, it could spell disaster.
“You might have the most skilled, most talented goalie,” LaBarbera said. “If he’s not feeling good about himself and his game, he’s going to struggle.”
Apart from the fact two new goalies will don the Maple Leaf, the battle is an interesting one on another front with three of the four in camp coming from the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. A province with a rich goalie tradition — but not so much in recent years — Canada hasn’t had a netminder from the QMJHL at the world juniors since Zach Fucale in 2014 and 2015, and before that Olivier Roy in 2011.
Rodrigue (Moncton Wildcats), who has the most international experience, and Ellis (Rimouski Oceanic) are joined by Alexis Gravel (Halifax Mooseheads), while Hunter Jones of the OHL’s Peterborough Petes is the lone netminder based outside Quebec. Zachary Emond (Rouyn-Noranda Huskies) made the showcase roster, but returned home for unspecified reasons without stepping on the ice.
Shawn Bullock, Hockey Canada’s director of men’s teams, said having that many goalies from the run-and-gun QMJHL is just a coincidence.
“We want the best players, we want the best goalies,” he said. “We’re not worried about boundaries.”
Jones was a second-round pick by Minnesota at the 2019 NHL draft, while Ellis went in the third round to St. Louis. Gravel (Chicago) and Emond (San Jose) were selected 14 spots apart in the sixth round last year.
Rodrigue would appear to have the early inside track for Canada’s world junior opener Dec. 26 against the Americans in Ostrava. He started the first exhibition game Tuesday with a strong lineup in front of him against the U.S., putting up a spotless 17-save performance before Jones allowed one goal on 14 shots in relief in a 4-1 win.
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“It’s a huge honour playing for your country,” said Jones, a native of Brantford, Ont. “It’s a surreal feeling.”
LaBarbera said there’s lots to admire about every goalie in camp.
“I like his demeanour,” LaBarbera said of the six-foot-one, 164-pound Rodrigue. “He’s very controlled in how he approaches things.
“But there’s a fire inside him.”
Jones, on the other hand, is a big body at six foot four and 194 pounds with plenty of upside.
“If you’re an NHL team, you’re drooling,” LaBarbera added. “We’re expecting him to push.”
Canada, with a lineup that will look vastly different when the world juniors start, played its second game of the showcase Wednesday against Finland. Ellis stopped just 16 of 23 shots as the sleepy Canadians fell behind 7-0 before Gravel — a six-foot-three, 219-pound product of Asbestos, Que. — made 13 saves the rest of the way in an 8-3 loss.
“I just do my best to try and show I deserve a spot on that team,” Gravel said. “But you know what? At the end of this week the team won’t be made. It’ll be in December.”
LaBarbera got to know the six-foot-one, 188-pound Ellis at the under-18 world championship, and while Wednesday was an outing to forget, the coach came away impressed.
“They’re mature kids,” said LaBarbera, a veteran of 187 NHL games with six teams. “I’m looking forward to see how it all plays out.”
And whichever way it does, the country’s eyes will be zeroed in on that Canadian crease.
“You have to embrace it,” LaBarbera said of the pressure. “It’s about stepping up in key moments.”
It’s the middle of summer, but those moments are just five months away.