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Canadian Press
12/30/2006 11:22:30 AM

LEKSAND, Sweden (CP) - Jonathan Toews has learned to let go just a little bit.

The 18-year-old forward from Winnipeg had a trying season with his University of North Dakota Fighting Sioux leading up to playing for Canada at the world junior hockey championship.

A sprained shoulder that took him out of the lineup for a couple weeks, his lack of production and his team's struggles when he returned caused the six-foot-one, 203-pound forward to mentally clench.

"I was just trying to do too much," Toews said Saturday. "It was definitely mental. I've been through that before when you are going through slumps and nothing is working and you kind of stop believing in yourself."

It came to a head the week before he reported to the Canadian team's selection camp on Dec. 10.

After his lacklustre performance in a loss to Wisconsin to start a weekend series against the Badgers, North Dakota coach Dave Hakstol decided was time for a heart-to-heart with one of his star players.

"He dragged me in his office and said, `Just go out there and play and be the kid that you were when you were lighting it up in Pee Wee and don't worry about anything,"' Toews recalled.

"I just did that. I didn't score in the next game, but I had a great game and came to camp in Calgary and I've been much more confident ever since."

Canada, which has already earned a bye to next week's semifinal, concludes the preliminary round Sunday in Group A against Slovakia. The game can be seen live on TSN, TSN HD and TSN Broadband at 6:30am et/3:30am pt.

In Group B games Saturday, Finland beat Switzerland 4-0 to improve to 2-1 and the Czech Republic picked up its first win with a 2-1 win over Belarus. Both those teams sit at 1-2.

Toews, who has two goals and an assists in three games, carries an intensity in his eyes, which don't blink or look away when he speaks to you.

"That ferocity ... I'm looking at him right across the hallway right now and he's still got that look in his eye," linemate Ryan O'Marra said. "He's intensely focused.

"A lot of the players can look at him and say, `Look at how focused Johnny is and that's why he's having success.' He's a leader in that respect in leading by example."

Canadian head coach Craig Hartsburg sees the hunger in Toews and loves it.

"He's just got big eyes, bright eyes," Hartsburg said. "He wants information, he wants to be taught. He wants to be coached.

"He loves his teammates, he talks to them on the bench. He competes, pays a big price and he's got skill."

As Canada's second-line centre and a veteran of the team that won gold in the 2006 world junior championship in Vancouver, Toews gives Canada scoring depth and a shoulder-to-the-wheel work ethic as he fights and squirms his way through checks along the boards to drive the net.

"Sometimes you think you can't get past a guy, but if you get an inch on him or good body position and keep your feet moving, I guess it's not too hard," Toews explained. "You've just got to keep battling."

A sign Toews was going to be a driven hockey player surfaced at age 10.

He found out that Guy Lafleur would skate in the middle of the night, so at 3 a.m. in a minus-40 C Winnipeg winter morning, Toews headed out to the backyard rink his father Bryan had made and began scraping it in preparation to strap on the skates.

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