EDMONTON – The last time Don Hay coached Canada at the U20, Jamie Storr and Dan Cloutier were his goalies. Ryan Smyth and Alexandre Daigle were teenage forwards, and Wade Redden and Ed Jovanovski were his stud blueliners. Only six other coaches have ever coached Canada at two World Junior tournaments, and in each previous instance their second event came right after their first.
Not so for Hay, who has been coaching all over the continent in between, from the juniors in the WHL to Utah in the AHL and brief NHL stints with Phoenix and Calgary. His longest and current tenure has been with the Vancouver Giants of the WHL, for whom he has been head coach since 2005. He took the team to a Memorial Cup win at the end of his second season and remains passionate about coaching young players.
“I’ve been involved in coaching juniors for a long time and I still have a burning desire to coach here,” Hay explained. “I thought this would be a good time to put my name in and apply for the opportunity to coach. It’s quite an honour to be here. There are a lot of good junior coaches throughout Canada who are qualified for the job. For them to pick me was quite an honour.”
Hay comes to a team where the expectations haven’t changed since his last tour of duty – it’s gold or bust. The difficulty this year is three-fold. First, all games will be played in NHL arenas and this promises to be the biggest, most successful U20 of all time, a stage unlike any previous. With the bigger stage comes unprecedented pressure.
Then, there is the fact that Canada has lost the past two gold medal games in highly disappointing ways, first in overtime to the U.S. and then by blowing a 3-0 lead in the third period to the Russians. Lastly, Hay has only four returning players on his roster, meaning he has to create a team almost from scratch.
“I think every coach goes into a situation like this with a mindset of the kind of team he would like,” he explained of the selection process. “For us, the summer camp was really useful. Having 47 players come – and see what players would be available – was important. We came out of that camp with a good idea of what identity we’d want from our players. As it progressed, you look at the players available and see how we can use their strengths to fit into the team identity we wanted.”
More specifically, Hay looked for three qualities. “Playing in Canada and playing in the smaller rink, obviously we wanted a team that could be a puck-pursuit team. Hockey sense was really important, and skating was also really important.”
Of course, every camp produces a few surprises. Some players who the coaching staff didn’t reasonably expect to make the team did, while others it thought were a lock for the team were cut. Thus, the need for a summer evaluation camp, to give the players and coaches an idea of where the team selection process stood.
“There were eleven players who were at camp here in December in Calgary who weren’t at the summer camp in Edmonton, so that’s a good sign for the program,” Hay said. “Other players found a way to get on the radar, and then once they got to camp they made an impression. One of those players was Tanner Pearson. He came to camp leading the OHL in scoring, so he wasn’t unknown, but I hadn’t seen a lot of him. Our scout Kevin Prendergast had identified him as a candidate to make the team, and at the selection camp he got even better and made the team. There will always be guys who surprise or disappoint depending on how they perform in the competition of the selection camp.”
Once he had focused on the kind of team he wanted, though, Hay still had the daunting task of making a group of talented individuals play like a team. Indeed, his roster counts players from 16 different teams across Canada and one NCAA player, Jaden Schwartz.
“That’s always the challenge for any Canadian coaching the World Juniors, to form a team really quickly,” Hay readily conceded. “Part of that is on ice, and part of that is off ice. I know there have been European teams that have been together since the start of the season and have played tournaments and travelled as a group. It’s always a challenge for us. You try to get the players to get to know each other and feel comfortable with each other.”
And then there’s the goaltender question. Mark Visentin is one of those returnees from last year, but it was his poor play in the third period of the ultimate game in 2011 that turned gold to silver. Hay was unfazed by that history in bringing him back.
“He’s a quality and character young man, and he took responsibility for his play in the final game last year. I think when any young person can step up and do that shows what kind of a person he is. He went to the summer camp and played very well, had a good year with his club team, and had a good selection camp. People learn through adversity, and I think he’s gotten better because of it.”
As for the fact that only one collegian made the team, Hay sees no special importance positive or negative to the fact.
“We had two college players at our selection camp. We don’t care. We want the best players as long as they’re born in Canada. Kevin identified Jaden Schwartz and Phil Di Guiseppe. They both did well in the selection camp and Jaden went on to make the team.” Indeed, Schwartz was so highly regarded that his teammates voted him captain on Thursday.
Of course, all hockey fans in North America have New Year’s Eve circled on their IIHF U20 calendar – Canada versus United States, last battle of 2011.
“I’m sure that game is on the radar,” Hay agreed. “There’s always a rivalry between Canada and the U.S., but it’s also important you don’t look too far ahead. We have to play some pretty good teams before December 31. A lot of players play against each other through under-17 and under-18 programs, so they get to know each other that way and want to win, of course.”
On a personal level, Hay is coming full circle. The 2012 U20 marks the 30th anniversary of the establishing of Hockey Canada’s Program of Excellence, and with his previous participation 16 years ago that means reminiscing and recalling good times and great players.
“Ryan Smyth came and talked to our group at the summer evaluation camp in Edmonton. He was one player on that team. I got texts from Darcy Tucker and other players wishing us luck. With the reunion this year everybody who had the opportunity to play for Canada at the World Juniors is getting an invite to come back and watch a game. That’s a great opportunity to see hopefully many of the players from that team, like Todd Harvey. I’m looking forward to it.”