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The road to Red Deer

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The COVID-19 pandemic meant planning for Canada’s National Junior Team Sport Chek Selection Camp included a few more twists and turns

The latest master schedule for Canada’s National Junior Team Sport Chek
Selection Camp is version 40. Or 39. Or 38. Maybe 41. Depends on who you
ask, really.

It’s not a big surprise that no one can keep track; that’s what happens
when the world – and with it the schedule – changes on what seems like a
daily, if not hourly, basis.

“We went from planning for a traditional selection camp and a traditional
IIHF World Junior Championship to basically having everything altered, and
planning and formalizing more of a centralization plan, if you will, with a
longer, more extended selection camp,” says Ben Shutron, the manager of
national teams who is leading the logistics for Canada’s National Junior
Team.

The first seeds were planted for the 2021 IIHF World Junior Championship
not long after the 2020 tournament came to a close. André Tourigny was
introduced as head coach of the 2021 edition of Canada’s National Junior
Team on Jan. 27, the same day Alan Millar was named the U20 lead with the
Program of Excellence management group.

Just over three weeks after Canada won 2020 gold in the Czech Republic, the
focus had quickly shifted towards Edmonton and Red Deer, and the 2021 World
Juniors on home ice. Meetings were held and early versions of schedules for
summer and selection camps were created.

But in early March, the COVID-19 pandemic took over every aspect of daily
life. With no real understanding of what the future may hold, the schedule
became a moving target, with various iterations depending on the state of
the pandemic.

Where would the camp be held? How many players would attend? Would they be
allowed to travel? Would they be allowed on the ice? And, of course, the
biggest question of them all – would there even be an IIHF World Junior
Championship?

That question was answered Sept. 17 when the International Ice Hockey
Federation and Hockey Canada announced that the 2020 World Juniors would be
played exclusively in Edmonton, in a bubble, beginning Christmas Day.

That put the planning for selection camp into overdrive, and after other
potential options – regional hubs, multiple evaluation camps – fell by the
wayside, the focus became an extended selection camp.

With the Western Hockey League and Ontario Hockey League yet to begin, and
the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League underway but facing its own COVID-19
challenges, the majority of players who would be invited to camp hadn’t
played a competitive game since March, when the pandemic shut down the
hockey world.

So instead of the typical camp – as an example, the camp in December 2019
was a four-day affair – the decision was made to bring 46 players to Red
Deer, Alta., for an unprecedented 28-day camp that includes nine games –
three Red-White intrasquad games and six against U SPORTS competition.

“There are three things [we need to accomplish],” Scott Salmond, Hockey
Canada’s senior vice-president of national teams, says of the planning. We
need to evaluate players. Normally we have a league, or leagues, to
evaluate players, but we don’t have that. We need to create that ourselves.
Secondly, once you’ve done an evaluation, you’ve got to be able to select,
so now we need competition. That means we need more players than at a
typical selection camp; we need to have Red and White, and then we need to
play U SPORTS. And the third part is preparation. Once we’ve evaluated and
selected, and while we’re doing that, we also need to prepare, because a
lot of other countries are playing. Their leagues are up and running, and
we need to make sure that our players are getting the games, getting the
reps and getting the time on ice.”

Sounds easy, doesn’t it?

On the hockey side, sure. Salmond, Millar, Tourigny and the rest of the
staff have ample opportunity to get players on the ice, get them game ready
and ensure the best possible version of Team Canada will step onto the ice
on Dec. 26 for its tournament opener against Germany.

But when there’s a global pandemic to worry about, it throws an arena-sized
wrench into pretty much every detail.

“Our biggest challenge is that we’re hockey people, and we work in hockey
for a living,” Salmond says. “We’re really good at planning camps and
building schedules for hockey. When you add in the challenge of COVID and
the responsibility of making sure everyone is healthy and safe, it takes
you out of your comfort level. It makes you become an expert quickly in
protocols and testing, and just trying to make sure you do everything
right. And so it’s always having that thought first of health and safety,
and hockey second.”

To that end, Hockey Canada has tasked Chelsea Stewart, a national teams
coordinator, with the role of COVID-19 compliance officer.

“It’s basically becoming an expert in all things COVID, and specifically
the status of it within Canada,” Stewart says of her position. “It’s all
the guidelines and protocols that are in place by our government and making
sure that we’re not only taking care of our team’s safety, but the general
public as well.”

Stewart might be the point person, but she is far from the only voice when
it comes to health and safety. For the camp to be successful from a
pandemic perspective, it takes a commitment from all 46 players and every
staff member who has gathered in central Alberta.

“It’s buy-in from everybody,” Stewart says. “We’ve been talking about
health and safety since the roster got announced. We had a couple of
conference calls with the staff, a couple of conference calls with the
players. Before coming into camp, it was just reinforcing the messages of
how we can conduct this camp safely and making sure that everybody’s going
to be healthy and ready to play.”

The planning also involved more than just the typical stakeholders. On top
of the usual suspects on the hockey side, local, provincial and federal
governments were part of the discussions to ensure the most stringent of
protocols were being met and, in some cases, exceeded.

“We had to work very closely with the Canadian Hockey League,” Shutron
says. “We had to work with various departments within Hockey Canada, with
our senior leadership team. We had to work with Alberta Health Services. We
had to work with the City of Red Deer, and our hotels and our facilities,
to ultimately ensure that we’re providing a safe environment, we’re
providing a secure environment and, ultimately, we’re providing a
COVID-19-free environment.”

Now the first few days are out of the way, players and staff are finding a
rhythm in that environment, knowing where they can and can’t go, what they
can and can’t do.

But the world will continue to change and there will be bumps in the road …
that’s just reality. It’s how those bumps are navigated that is important,
and Salmond is confident the structure is in place to deal with any
unexpected occurrences.

“We agreed to make decisions based on what we know today,” Salmond says.
“It might change tomorrow, and then we’ll make another adjustment. We just
continue to evolve. I give our coaches and everyone credit because we all
have the same mindset. Early on, it’s easy to get frustrated – you build a
plan and then it changes. But I’ve been incredibly impressed by the
resilience of our group.

“The challenge is to make sure we don’t get lax, to make sure we stay
diligent and, over the time that we have together before we get to
Edmonton, to make sure we all stay safe. That’s the challenge. That’s the
plan.”



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