TORONTO – It’s 1 August, and down by Lake Ontario there is a light breeze with temperatures touching 30 by the time the clock strikes 12. But inside the MasterCard Centre in Toronto’s west end there are 40 teenagers skating madly around Rink 3 hoping to impress the Canadian coaching staff of the 2017 IIHF World Junior Championship.
One of that number is 18-year-old Jake Chychrun, the son of former NHLer Jeff and nephew of Luke Richardson. Jake was drafted 16th overall by Arizona just a few weeks ago, so he is a young man with three teams in his head: the NHL’s Coyotes; the Sarnia Sting of the OHL, where he has played the last two years; and, the Hockey Canada program.
“I don’t think it’s mentally tough to be skating now, but maybe a bit physically,” he said after practise. “We’ve all started our training programs, and any time you get a chance to come to a camp like this, it’s not too tough. At the end of the day, we’re working towards a gold medal. That’s exciting in itself.”
The demands on a junior player these days are tremendous, perhaps overstepping what is necessary for good development. What with the exhibition season, regular season, and playoffs, the formal hockey season is plenty long. Add to that the Combine, rookie camps for NHL teams, and national teams, a top teen doesn’t get so much as a whiff of rest all year long. That doesn’t faze Chychrun et al.
“I just want to come away with as much information as I can,” he said of Hockey Canada’s camp, which leads to a series of games against the U.S., Finland, and Sweden later this week in Plymouth, Michigan. “I want to make an impression. I had a tough camp last year. I want to take what I learned last year and come to camp this year a bit more prepared and determined to make the team. It’s an honour to be here. I just want to make the team and help it win the gold medal.”
As for the three teams in his portfolio, the talented defenceman is taking one at a time. “Every system is going to be different,” he agreed, “but I think what helps is being to all the previous camps. A lot of guys here have been to the U18s, and it’s all the same throughout Hockey Canada, so I think it’s good to have that experience. When you come here in the summer, it’s like a refresher. It all comes back pretty quickly. When we go back to our club teams, it’s obviously different, but it all makes you stronger.”
Given the fact that Chychrun played at this past year’s IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship (a fourth-place finish for Canada) and he attended last year’s U20 camp, he feels like a bit of a veteran among the 40 players in tow.
“I definitely see myself in more of a leadership role here,” he explained. “That’s something I take pride in. I think I’ve had leadership capabilities since I was young. That’s the way I was raised. I always wanted to win and improve myself and my teammates. Being at the U20 camp last year helped because a lot of guys here haven’t been to one until now, so anything I can do to calm them down and get them to be relaxed—I know I was nervous heading into my first camp—is important.”
Being the son of an NHLer, Chychrun had the benefit of being coached by his father, casually at NHL rinks and later by his retired dad in house league. He also benefitted by playing both forward and defence as a kid.
“I played centre until I was about eleven years old,” he started. “I was playing in Florida, and there was a time when our team was short on the back end, so my dad knows the value of a puck-moving defenceman and wanted me to try it. A lot of times in the middle of the games he’d put me back there for a few shifts, and then when I was playing with Little Caesar’s in Detroit, it stuck. I’ve been a defenceman ever since. I’ve learned so much from my dad. He played in the NHL, won a Stanley Cup as a defenceman. He’s done everything I want to do, and to have that voice in my life has been huge to me.”
So what exactly did dad impart on the youngster? “I think the main thing he taught me when I was a kid was the skill set in the game,” Jake recounted. “He always wanted me and my teammates to have fun. He’s the reason I fell in love with the game. He made it fun for me and my teammates to show up the rink every day and work hard and have fun. He always taught playing with the puck, being creative, trying different things to get the puck out of the zone. I’ve always taken pride in my puck skills. But my dad was also more a defensive defenceman, so he’s helped with positioning as well.”
Any kid who gets an invite to a Hockey Canada camp is likely to say yes, but let’s face it—a Canadian getting the invite this year is extra excited because the tournament will be back in Toronto and Montreal. Home soil. Home pressure. Home thrill.
“It doesn’t matter where you’re playing, but when it is at home, it’s definitely that much more special,” Chychrun enthused. “We feel the extra pressure, but that’s fun. I know it was a tough tournament last year [in Finland], but we’re looking for a big bounce back this year at home. We want to make a big statement, and it starts by making an impact here. It’s more exciting. You see the billboards driving back to the hotel, already promoting it. We want to perform well for our country.”
And today, in the middle of a sweltering hot summer afternoon, the journey has already begun.