SOCHI – For players eligible for the National Hockey League Draft, The U18 World Championship is the final chance for them to show off their skills and raise their stock in the eyes of NHL teams.
For two Canadian kids, Josh Morrissey and Morgan Klimchuk, the 2013 U18s will be the final stop on the long road towards reaching one place, the National Hockey League, a goal known among hockey circles as “making the show”.
But before that, they will be called upon to help Canada claim U18 gold in Sochi, in a tournament where the country has struggled without the help of some of its top talent, a few of whom are still competing in the Canadian Hockey League playoffs. Canada last won gold in 2003 and 2008 but since then has only claimed one medal, a bronze at last year’s U18.
Going into the tournament, both Klimchuk and Morrissey feel encouraged by their performances in their last club season before their names will be called in Newark, USA, site of the 2013 draft. Klimchuk, a left winger, had a total of 76 points (36G+40A) as one of the top forwards for the Western Hockey League’s Regina St. Pats. This stat line raised a few eyebrows among draft prognosticators, as Klimchuk registered as many goals in his sophomore season as he had points in his rookie season with Regina in 2011-2012.
“Personally I thought it was a pretty good season for me,” said Klimchuk. “I contributed consistently all year offensively and defensively, playing special teams roles not just on the power play but on the penalty kill as well.”
Morrissey, a defenceman with the WHL’s Prince Albert Raiders, led the team in scoring among defenders in his rookie season, and followed up with a gold medal at the Ivan Hlinka tournament last summer. A 47-point, +14 season has cemented the 18-year-old as one of the top Canadian prospects in the upcoming draft.
“Overall I think I made some good strides defensively and improved my plus/minus, which was a goal for me going in,” he said.
Morrissey also admitted that the pressure of making a good impression in his draft year led to some early mistakes in the season.
“I think for a month into the season I started trying to do too much with the puck, hold it too long or make an extra play with it. I started to play worse because of it and went into a slump offensively,” he said, “My coach just told me to simplify and play my game and things improved after that.”
While putting on the Maple Leaf is without doubt an honour for both these players, it is also bittersweet in a sense. As the U18 tournament typically begins around the same time as the start of the Canadian Hockey League playoffs, the national team roster is stocked with players whose teams either missed the playoffs or were eliminated in the first round.
“For sure, I had just lost out on the playoffs the night before, so the next day I had just woke up and was pretty upset after going hard for the whole season and then having it all finish just like that,” said Morrissey. “It was a pretty bad feeling, but I got the call from Hockey Canada and that brightened things up, it was actually my birthday that day also so altogether it kind of softened the blow (laughs).”
In the training camp for Team Canada in Toronto, the players got a surprise visit from Ron Ellis, a former NHL forward who played for Team Canada at the 1972 Summit Series, a momentous event in hockey history that occurred way before the players were even born.
“It was pretty amazing, a lot of guys didn’t know who he was before and didn’t know much about the Summit Series, but it was huge not just from a hockey standpoint but also from a political standpoint,” said Morrissey. “As Canadians we knew about the series and what it meant, but it was great to hear the story from someone who was there.”
In more ways than one, Morrissey and Klimchuk have taken the same road to the draft. Both are Calgary-born and played for a year in the same minor league. Last summer, as a special preparation for their last season before the draft, both attended the Crash Conditioning Hockey camp in Calgary, an all-inclusive hockey training program that caters to both professional players and NHL prospects alike.
“We did a lot of strength and conditioning, that was the main focus behind the camp program,” said Klimchuk. “But we also incorporated things like yoga, on ice sessions, skating work. It was all pretty diverse, but also very hockey specific.”
Said Morrissey about the camp: “We got training in the right areas, you’re not doing things arm curls that’ll make you look good on the beach but won’t help on the ice.”
During training both players sometimes worked alongside established NHL stars like Jordan Eberle of the Edmonton Oilers and Mike Green of the Washington Capitals.
“Jordan Eberle I talked to a lot, he played for the Pats and his parents are actually my neighbours in Calgary, that’s where he grew up,” said Klimchuk. “We have a lot of ties that way and he was really good about showing me what it takes to be a pro,” said Klimchuk. His advice going into my draft year was just to work hard and to play my game, and it’s something I really took to heart and tried to focus on.”
With a strong performance at the U18 tournament, both players will have done all they can do, and will have to endure a two month wait until their names are called in Newark. When asked if they had any preference for teams, the answer was the same.
“I just want to get picked,” said Klimchuk. “It’s so tough to tell because every team has certain needs that change depending on who gets picked before, but obviously I’d like to go as high as I can and to a team that needs me.
“It’s hard to say,” said Morrissey. “I grew up in Calgary so it would be cool to go there, but no matter where you go, it’s the NHL and it’s a dream come true.”