They will be young, they will be fast and they will be skilled.
When the Canadian juniors take to the ice on Boxing Day in the Czech Republic — starting the world tournament with a game against the Americans — they will be very much a byproduct of everything the Hunter brothers look for when building a hockey team.
Mark Hunter, a former assistant general manager with the Maple Leafs, was one of the members of Hockey Canada’s management team that assembled this squad. Dale Hunter, a former coach of the Washington Capitals, will be behind the bench.
“Yeah, we think alike,” Dale Hunter said prior to the team’s departure for Europe. “We like skill and lots of will.”
That is a big reason why Canada is bringing a number of younger players — 17- and 18-year-olds in a tournament often reserved for 19-year-olds. Forwards Alexis Lafrenière and Quinton Byfield, expected to be the top two picks in the NHL’s June draft, will have big roles to play.
“They deserve to be here,” Dale Hunter said.
“We’re going to be a hard-working hockey club,” Mark Hunter said. “I think we’re going to have good speed. I think our defence is going to be very solid, very mobile, very skilled … (they) can move pucks out of our own zone quickly.
“That’s what we want to do, get it up there to our forwards. I think we’re going to play a high-speed game.”
There are five returnees: Lafrenière, Arizona Coyotes centre Barrett Hayton, Grand Rapids centre Joe Veleno, Halifax defenceman Jared McIsaac and Spokane defenceman Ty Smith.
Others were involved in the decision making behind this team, of course — including chief scout Brad McEwan — but there may not be a harder-working scout than Mark Hunter, or a more respected coach than Dale.
“(Dale Hunter is) very supportive,” said Knights forward Liam Foudy, who made the world junior cut. “That’s the biggest thing. He just wants to see his players succeed. He’s always there for you, anything you need.”
“It’s a pleasure to learn from him,” said Connor McMichael, another Canadian forward from the Knights. “He’s coached in the NHL, he’s played in the NHL, so he knows a lot. He’s been through it all, so he’s a great guy to have as a coach in junior.”
The Hunters were hard-nosed as players — Dale was in the NHL for 19 seasons, Mark for 12 — earning every point and every penalty minute. When their careers ended, they teamed with former tough guy Basil McRae to buy the OHL’s Knights in 2000, turning London into a model junior franchise.
It was the antithesis to how they played. They stocked the Knights with the most skill they could land: Patrick Kane, John Tavares, Mitch Marner, John Carlson and Corey Perry, to name a few. They’ve won the Memorial Cup twice and the J. Ross Robertson Cup as OHL champion four times. The pedigree is high.
Now they hope that synchronicity with each other will work at junior hockey’s highest level as Canada goes for its 18th gold medal.
“We just make one another aware of each other when we have different opinions,” Dale Hunter said. “He goes, ‘Maybe this guy, he can drive the line’ or something. So we work together to make sure that we get the best out of all these kids and get the best players to play.”
The world junior tournament can be tough on Canadian kids. It matters more to Canadian fans than to those from other countries, and when Canada loses the level of disappointment can go off the rails. The was the case last year when the Canadians were eliminated by Finland in the quarterfinals — in overtime —despite a roster loaded with NHL draft picks.
Dale Hunter doesn’t think it will be a problem: “It’s an honour for them to be here, and they all want to play. You help them to feel comfortable.”
Mark Hunter said his brother is the best choice to run the bench. “Dale brings a lot of calmness,” Mark said. “Of course, like every coach, technically he’s strong and he knows who he wants to put on the ice. But there’s a calmness to him, and the respect that he holds behind the bench that a lot of coaches don’t have.”
Get more sports in your inbox
Get the Star’s Sports Headlines email newsletter for a daily round-up of the latest big news.
Dale is competitive, too. “The players that are around him long enough can see that. And he’s not an in-your-face kind of coach. He’s calm, but he’s a coach that gets his point through by ice time, and his presence on the bench, and in the dressing room.”
He once benched Alex Ovechkin in the third period of a 2-1 playoff game. That’s the kind of motivation he intends to use with the Canadian team.
“Every hockey player wants to play,” Dale said. “I’ve been benched a few times and I definitely came out and played a lot harder the next game.”