CALGARY — Scott Wedgewood figures he could drive himself insane by obsessing from morning to night about the importance of the next game for Canada at the 2012 IIHF world junior hockey championships.
Do or die. Win and advance to the gold-medal game. Lose and endure the inevitable post-mortem that would no doubt drag on for months, complete with a full autopsy on what some would no doubt see as a national tragedy.
So Wedgewood, the odds-on favourite to start in net for Canada, opts to take mental holidays from the suffocating pressure by lounging around like a normal sleep-deprived teenager.
His television programming of choice this week: the movie Transformers, starring Hollywood sex symbol Megan Fox.
As a diversion Sunday, Wedgewood joined forces with defenceman Jamie Oleksiak to invite Fox via Twitter to a medal-round game in Calgary.
“We just saw it on TV and were having a little fun,” Wedgewood said Monday, blushing ever so slightly after practice at WinSport Arena. “Just keeping things relaxed.”
Keeping things relaxed is the major objective with the clock ticking down to Tuesday’s semifinal against Russia, which beat the Czech Republic 2-1 in overtime in Monday night’s quarter-finals. The Canadians rolled through the preliminary round with a perfect 4-0 record, but all that means nothing when the puck drops at the Scotiabank Saddledome.
As a rule, pressure is more implied than anything. But on Monday, Canada’s gold-medal hopefuls submitted themselves to a good 20 minutes of interrogation by reporters intent on discovering how these kids are coping with the expectation of winning gold on home soil
To a man, they talked about turning pressure into power, as advertised by Hockey Canada’s corporate friends at Nike.
“I think they’ve got it right,” centre Freddie Hamilton said of the splashy marketing campaign. “We’ve used the pressure to our advantage, I think.
“We understand how supportive Canada is. We’re not only doing it for us — we’re doing it for the entire country. I think we’ve turned the pressure into excitement.”
While every player deals with pressure in his own way, the Canadian defence is likely the area most under scrutiny. With not one returning player — and no devastating hitters — on the back end, the question remains whether Canada can contain the explosive talents of stars like Nikita Gusev and Yevgeni Kuzetsnov, of Russia, and Swedish stick-rider Max Friberg.
In football, they say playoff games are won and lost on the line of scrimmage. For Canada, all signs point to defensive-zone coverage as the deciding factor moving forward.
“They do a lot of the little things right,” captain Jaden Schwartz said of his defence. “People may say they’re not big names, but in the future they’re going to be big names. They’re great defencemen. They chip in offensively. They see the ice so well.
“For a non-fan watching the game from the outside, you would think we have a lot of defencemen returning from last year. And we’re going to need them going forward.”
Thankfully for Canada, defencemen Scott Harrington (upper body) and Nathan Beaulieu (face) practised Monday after leaving the game early on New Year’s Eve.
“Beaulieu has the cage on, so we’re making fun of him for that,” Wedgewood said. “And Harry, he’s doing fine.”
The quarterback on the power play, Beaulieu is wearing the cage for good reason after taking a puck off his right cheek in the 3-2 victory over the United States. Word is Beaulieu is lucky he had his mouth open at the time of impact — otherwise he would likely have a broken jaw.
Head coach Don Hay missed practice with the flu Monday, but the constant harping about consistency has apparently hit home with his charges throughout the lineup. Hay tires of talk about last year’s third-period collapse in the gold-medal game against Russia, but the lessons remain.
For those vacationing on Pluto at the time, Mark Visentin surrendered five goals in the final 20 minutes of a 5-3 Canadian loss to Russia just across the border in Buffalo, New York. And the video evidence shows Visentin is hardly the only culprit, with the Canadian defence running around in panic mode to seal the collapse.
“You can’t have any lulls in your game,” Hay was saying before his stomach conspired against him. “As soon as you have a lull or back off a little bit, the other team really seems to gain momentum.
“For us, it’s important to understand that.”
As a result, in virtually every single media interview, the players preach about the importance of playing a full 60 minutes. Cliche, but oh so true — especially for junior-aged hockey players.
These teenagers just happen to carry the gold-medal expectations of an entire country on their shoulder pads.
As they keep telling themselves, pressure is power.
“I think every other team doesn’t want us to win,” Wedgewood said. “If they don’t win, they don’t want Canada to win. It’s something we take pride in and we take the challenge among ourselves to be the best in this sport.
“Everyone says hockey is Canada’s game. We want to prove that it still is.”
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Bill Arnold #14 of Team USA and Mark Pysyk #5 of Team Canada chase the puck into the corner during the 2012 World Junior Hockey Championship game at Rexall Place on December 31, 2011 in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Team Canada defeated Team USA 3-2.
Photograph by: Richard Wolowicz, Getty Images