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Tuesday, August 27, 2013
Canada's young stars going for gold

By Pierre LeBrun
ESPN.com

CALGARY, Alberta -- John Tavares remembers exactly where he was when Sidney Crosby scored the golden goal.

"I was on Doug Weight's couch," chuckled the New York Islanders rising superstar. "That was my first year and I was living in his guest house. We watched that game together. Matt Moulson was there as well, I remember when Sid scored we both jumped up and I was happy I won that wager that day with Dougie."

In just four years, Tavares will have gone from superfan of Team Canada to key ingredient on the roster for Sochi, as the soon-to-be 23-year-old is an absolute lock to make the squad.

And he won't be alone among a young wave of Canadian star talent that is trying hard to crack its first Olympic team.

Team Canada is in transition, buoyed by a rich and deep pool of young, talented players like Tavares and Steven Stamkos. In all, 17 of the 47 players invited to Canada's camp this week are 25 or younger, shining a bright light on the future of Canadian hockey.

A decade ago, Team Canada probably wouldn't have been so eager to take a look at so many youngsters for this kind of tournament. But the game has changed. These kids come ready for the big time.

"The development is so much greater and there's so much more exposure and more importance on things like nutrition and off-ice training," Tavares said. "And that really wasn't there even 15, 20 years ago. It makes a big difference for a lot of us young guys when you're exposed to it all and you can see what it takes and you have a better understanding of what it is to be an impact player earlier in your career.

"Whether me, Steven, Taylor Hall, Matt Duchene, all these guys, I think we're talented hockey players and we're driven to be great players and want to succeed and want to be a part of stuff like this. I don't think you want to let your age hold you back, you want to take advantage of every opportunity you can."

Four years ago, Jonathan Toews was one of those young bucks at the Canadian camp dreaming of a shot at playing in Vancouver. It seems hard to believe now, but Toews was considered an outside shot at making that team. And even when he made it, it appeared he would have a smaller role. Well, we know how that all worked out. Toews, only 21 at the time, was named the Olympic tournament's best forward and easily was Team Canada's best player.

The Chicago Blackhawks captain vividly remembers his early jitters in the 2010 Olympic process.

"I wasn't catching passes too well," Toews laughed. "Just the little things that should be easy, I was kind of overthinking it."

But Toews proved to be a remarkable roster choice despite his young age and the two-time Stanley Cup champion says there are other young guys who can also bring it this time around.

"I was just looking to prove myself and I was confident that I was going to have a great season and play my way onto that team," said Toews.

"I don't think you can let what others think or what they say about you worry you too much, it's all about what you believe. It sounds pretty cheesy, but I guess it's kind of the way you go about it. I'm sure there's some young guys here too that maybe all the media and all the people don't think that right now they're on paper [to make it] ... but if they play their way onto the team, so be it. We want the guys that are really going and really want to be in that situation."

Tavares and Stamkos are slam dunks. Claude Giroux, as long as he recovers well from his injury, should also be a no-brainer to make his Olympic debut.

Stamkos had hoped that debut would have come in Vancouver.

HallIt's probably the hardest lineup in the world to crack. For a young player like myself ... I can play any position. I'll do whatever they want. If I'm in Sochi, I'll be happy. I'm willing to do anything to be part of this team.

-- Edmonton Oilers forward Taylor Hall

"I was disappointed," said the Tampa Bay Lightning superstar. "Obviously, you want to be on the team. I'm not going to sit here and say I was happy about watching them win gold, but at the same time, I was 19 years old and there were so many good players. It was just kind of nice hearing your name being thrown around as a potential candidate for that team. As a hockey fan, it was nice to see them win gold, obviously they made the right choices, but I did have a good year personally that year and you just try to use it as motivation."

Other 25-and-under forwards hoping to make it include Logan Couture, Matt Duchene, Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle and Jordan Staal. On defense, the 25-and-under group looking to make the team for the first time includes Alex Pietrangelo, Karl Alzner, Travis Hamonic and P.K. Subban.

Only a few of them will make it, of course. And they know that.

"It's probably the hardest lineup in the world to crack," said Hall, a dynamic winger for the Edmonton Oilers. "For a young player like myself ... I can play any position. I'll do whatever they want.

"If I'm in Sochi, I'll be happy. I'm willing to do anything to be part of this team."

The kicker for these young men is that Sochi will be possibly the last Olympics with NHL participation. No decision has been made either way, but if you believe the rumblings, this could be it.

For these young guys, it may be their one and only chance at playing in an Olympics.

"You want to take advantage of this for sure," said Tavares. "It's something you don't want to slip through for sure."

Couture, 24, hasn't had a lot of international experience for Canada and that's working against him. But if anyone was paying attention this year in the playoffs, he's as clutch as they come, a 200-foot player with versatility in his ability to play center or wing. That versatility is his biggest asset right now in trying to make this team.

"I've played a lot of games on the wing with Jumbo [Joe Thornton] in San Jose," said Couture. "I feel comfortable playing center and wing."

The challenge for Couture and all these young players this week was to act like they belonged and not appear overwhelmed by this new experience.

"I was wide-eyed meeting Steve Yzerman, because he was one of my favorite players growing up," admitted Couture. "But otherwise, I just tried to meet as many players and coaches as I could, people I didn't know before."

Couture was on the left wing Monday beside Tavares at center and Stamkos on right wing.

Head coach Mike Babcock warned the media not to read anything into those lines, but it's hard not to imagine the possibilities with that line. And it's a line that has familiarity.

"We know each other really well," said Tavares. "Me and Steven actually played a little minor hockey together in the summertime growing up as kids. We know each other really well. I know Logan really well from junior and playing a little bit on summer teams and Team Canada camps."

The key for these young players is to convince Team Canada brass that they can be trusted at both ends of the ice. Nobody is making this team who's going to be a defensive liability.

"They want guys who are going to be reliable with the puck, just play a 200-foot game," said Eberle. "If I can go to Edmonton and show the offense that I'm capable of, while keeping the puck out of my own net and being responsible in my own end, it'll go a long way. Whether it's the 13th forward, or whatever position they want you to take on, I'm willing to do that."

They're willing to do anything, of course, because they desperately want a chance to live out what they watched from their couches four years ago.

They want their own golden goal.

"I think after you see how those guys were celebrating and what it seemed to mean to them, it was pretty special and knowing whether or not you could be part of something like that," said Tavares. "Whether you can score that game-winning goal, I mean, you dream about that since you were a kid. But you'd love to be there. You push yourself to work hard to get there. It's something you dream about."