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Canadians on the clock

Time change might be working to their advantage in Russia

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UFA, Russia -- Goaltending coach Ron Tugnutt mused aloud during the Canadian junior hockey team's selection camp in Calgary that travelling 13 times zones to pursue a gold medal might not be a disadvantage for the team.

The world junior hockey championship was held in North America four consecutive years from 2009 to 2012 in Ottawa, Buffalo, N.Y., Saskatoon and then jointly in Calgary and Edmonton, respectively.

The moment the Canadian team stepped off the ice in those tournaments, their performance was reflected back to them around the clock via wall-to-wall television and web coverage, text messages and social media.

Tugnutt hoped Ufa, Russia, would afford this edition of the Canadian team some isolation because of the distance and time change.

"They won't be seeing as much of themselves on TV," he said then. "We're kind of on our own little island out there. I think this will be good for us."

After concluding the preliminary round 4-0 to finish first in Pool B, some Canadian players spoke of the unifying effect of travelling so far from home. They've been abroad together since Dec. 15, when Canada departed Calgary for a pre-competition camp and exhibition games in Finland.

"We had a few days in Vierumaki to definitely grow that bond," captain Ryan Nugent-Hopkins said. "It's amazing how much we've come together in this tournament on and off the ice."

Defenceman Dougie Hamilton, who helped Canada win bronze last year in Alberta, thought perhaps extended time in foreign countries may have given this team a troop mentality.

"Last year we went to Banff, but I think this year going through all the travel and the struggles with food and sleeping and stuff like that, I think it's kind of helped us get together," he said.

The Canadians players aren't completely sequestered from the outside world here. They still have their mobile phones and electronic notebooks, but they can shut them off and go to sleep while post-game debate and analysis continues at home.

Canadian coach Steve Spott has observed that his players seem happiest off ice when they're hanging around their hotel together.

"They don't want to leave the hotel," Spott said. "We've had a number of team activities planned, but they enjoy being around each other in the hotel and that, to me, is a sign of a great hockey club."

Canada is the only team in their hotel, which allowed their chefs Andre Gass and Jeff Hanna to commandeer the kitchen and cook for the team.

Canada's reward for finishing first in their pool and gaining the bye to Thursday's semifinal round was getting a day off from both the ice and the media on New Year's Day.

The Canadians await the winner of Wednesday's quarter-final between the Czech Republic and the United States. Defending champion Sweden also got a bye for finishing first in Pool A and will meet the winner of Wednesday's quarter-final between Russia and Switzerland.

"Now you're into one-game situations and we all know they are very difficult games, but I do like the place our team is in right now and I like the mindset of the group," Spott said.

Canada was able to ease into this tournament with a 9-3 win over Germany and a 6-3 victory over Slovakia, although the Slovaks were the better team in the first period of their game.

But Canada's real test was back-to-back games against the United States and host Russia on Sunday and Monday. Canada was minus two forwards because of suspensions, but held off a tough U.S. team 2-1.

Just over 24 hours later, they played smart, disciplined, hard hockey in a 4-1 win over the hosts.

Russia is a co-favourite for gold here because they're loaded with high-end, skilled players. Forward Nail Yakupov was the first overall pick in this year's NHL draft by Edmonton. But Russians relied too much on individual talent and not enough on team play against Canada.

Canada scored the most goals in the preliminary round (21) and tied with Sweden for the fewest against (8). Canadians were four of the tournament's top five scorers after pool play.

Nugent-Hopkins tops the tournament in points with three goals and eight assists in four games. Jonathan Huberdeau has seven points and Mark Scheifele and Ryan Strome lead Canada in goals with four apiece.

A player with an NHL season already under his belt is expected to stand out in a 19-year-old's tournament. Nugent-Hopkins was a Calder Trophy finalist after his rookie year with the Edmonton Oilers.

-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 1, 2013 D3

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