By Dan Kramer, Senior Writer, All Habs Hockey Magazine

HAMILTON, ON – There are few breaks in the life of a young aspiring professional hockey player. While a veteran like Josh Gorges enjoys a day at his parents’ Dairy Queen in Kelowna, B.C., or P.K. Subban has lunch with Cindy Crawford, for seven players in the Montreal Canadiens system, “off-season” is far from a fitting description for the month of August.

Every summer, USA Hockey hosts an under-20 mini-tournament as part of their preparation for December’s World Junior Championships, annually one of the highlights of the hockey calendar. Adding an extra element of intrigue to this year’s summer games is the addition of a Canadian entry to the event, providing further competition to the usual American, Swedish, and Finnish squads. The camp is a first step for players who hope to play for their country over what for most is Christmas vacation, further showing just how rigorous the schedule of these young men can be. While a strong start to their junior seasons can create exceptions, it is rare for a player not invited to one of these camps to end up on the tournament’s final squad.

This year’s tournament – held as always in Lake Placid, New York – has extra appeal to Montreal Canadiens fans, with some of the organization’s brightest young stars trying to increase their odds of making their country’s team.

Prospect specialist Corey Pronman named McCarron one of his co-players of the game in a 5-0 win over Finland (PHOTO: Kathy K, All Habs)
Prospect specialist Corey Pronman named McCarron one of his co-players of the game in a 5-2 win over Finland (PHOTO: Kathy K, All Habs)

The host Americans always start the tournament with a split squad, each of which played both Sweden and Finland before first cuts will be announced Wednesday. Both Brady Vail and Mike McCarron were in the fray for these games, with both far from assured of surviving Wednesday’s cuts.

Vail suited up for Team Blue, going pointless against Finland Sunday, while registering an assist in Monday’s matchup with Sweden. Vail was regularly employed on the penalty kill, even being designated the lone forward on the ice during a 3-on-5 situation against Sweden, and successfully winning the face-off for a clear. However, his ice time at even strength paled in comparison to some of his teammates, and while he was a part of a couple of offensive opportunities, his scoring chances were limited. Vail would seem to be in competition for a fourth line or thirteenth forward (specialist) role, though that certainly can be altered by how he starts his season in Windsor.

Even if McCarron fails to make this squad as an 18-year old, unlike Vail at 19, he will be eligible to return next year, and thus this camp is a great experience for him. Like Vail, McCarron was held off the scoresheet in his first contest with Team White, but put in a far better performance Monday, picking up a goal and an assist while being more involved in the play and creating chances regularly in the offensive end. At his young age, and given his size and physicality, McCarron is likely shooting for a job on the third or fourth line for Team USA, though a strong start to his debut season in London could pencil him into a second line slot. Either way, he faces tough competition for any role, and will need more performances like that in his second game.

While the two Americans’ fates likely won’t be determined until the team’s final roster is posted, the same can’t be said for the prospects playing on the European squads. All three of Sebastian CollbergJacob De La Rose, and Artturi Lehkonen were participants in last year’s World Junior Championships, and thus figure to be prominent players this time around.

Collberg and De La Rose both played in Team Sweden’s top 6 during wins over both USA White and Blue. Both players registered an assist in a 4-2 victory Sunday, and put in strong performances again on Sunday. De La Rose was held off the scoreboard in his second match, but was used on a second powerplay unit to stand in front of the net, killed penalties, and was also on the ice in the final minute with his side clinging to a single goal lead. Collberg’s Monday performance was even more noteworthy, as he scored the game’s first two goals, both on the powerplay from his trademark spot in the high slot. The heavy shooting winger added an assist on a brilliant play where he narrowly missed potting his hat trick marker, but then kept the puck in the offensive zone from his knees at the blueline, and fed Gustav Possler for a goal.

Collberg scored 2 goals and 2 assists in 2 games before having his tournament ended by a knee injury (PHOTO: Kathy K, All Habs)
Collberg (right) scored 2 goals and 2 assists in 2 games before having his tournament ended by a knee injury (PHOTO: Kathy K, All Habs)

Unfortunately, all would not end well for Collberg. Late in the second period Monday, on a harmless looking defensive zone play, Collberg would collide with an American forward, and twist his right knee while falling to the ice. He remained on the ice in a great deal of pain for quite some time before being helped off by two teammates without applying any pressure to his injured right leg. He didn’t return to the game, and his coach referred to it afterwards as a “little twist,” adding that while it doesn’t look good right now, it’s hard to tell until he’s re-evaluated the following day.

Lehkonen played for Team Finland, skating on the top line alongside Chicago draft pick Teuvo Teravainen. That line was dominant in a 6-5 overtime victory over USA Blue, with Lehkonen scoring a hat trick (including the tying goal with 11 seconds to play in the third) and adding a helper to compliment Teravainen’s goal and three assists. Monday’s game against the USA White squad wouldn’t go nearly as well, with the Finns dominated from start to finish and dropping a 5-2 decision, though Lehkonen would set up Teravainen’s shutout-breaking tally in the game’s dying moments.

After holding their own camp at the Canadiens’ practice facility in Brossard, Quebec, Team Canada arrives in Lake Placid to take on Finland on Wednesday. For Charles Hudon, this year is about redemption, after having made the squad last December but being forced to withdraw from the WJC due to an injury suffered in practice. He should be a lock for this year’s team as a versatile forward who can play either an offensive or two-way role, and would have to play himself off the team rather than the opposite.

Canada doesn’t have a returning goaltender, which opens a door for 2013 second round selection Zachary Fucale to potentially steal the starting job. Fucale, fresh off a Memorial Cup win, joins star junior teammates Nathan MacKinnon and Jonathan Drouin at Canada’s camp, though both forwards are highly likely to be playing in the NHL come the Fall, and thus would be unavailable for the main tourney.

Games continue through Saturday, when camp wraps up until December. All games can be followed on USA Hockey’s WJC website, or streamed live for a minimal cost via Fast Hockey. There is still little time for vacation after leaving Lake Placid, however, as Vail, McCarron, Hudon, and Fucale have just a few weeks to train for Montreal’s Rookie Camp in early September, while European seasons start even earlier, meaning pro training camps are already underway for Collberg, De La Rose, and Lehkonen. The Swedish Hockey League’s regular season kicks off September 14th, giving Collberg just over a month to heal from his knee injury.


For a visual look at Team Canada check here: Hockey Canada Summer Camp in Pictures [SLIDESHOW]