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Stu Cowan, CanWest News Service; Montreal Gazette
Published: Sunday, December 24, 2006

MONTREAL - Like many Canadian hockey fans, I'm really looking forward to sitting down in front of the TV on Boxing Day to watch Team Canada begin its quest for a three-peat at the world junior championship in Sweden.

The junior tournament has become my favourite annual sporting event to watch. There's nothing like watching a bunch of Canadian teenagers play their hearts out over a two-week span for national pride instead of money.

That's why I'd love to see the junior-age players replace the NHLers at the Olympic Games. I don't know about you, but the novelty of NHLers playing at the Olympics has worn off for me, and watching a bunch of millionaires on the Olympic podium doesn't make my heart pound as much as watching the Canadian kids sing the national anthem after winning gold at the world juniors.

I was one of five people who ranked last winter's world junior team No. 1 in voting of sports editors and writers for CanWest News Service's Team of the Year, and was happy when the juniors narrowly beat out Brad Gushue's Olympic gold-medal curling team for the award, which was announced on Friday.

With points awarded on a 10-6-3 basis for first-, second- and third-place votes, the juniors finished with 89 points, followed by Gushue's rink with 84 and the Canadian speed-skating team with 70. Gushue had six first-place votes, while the speed-skaters had seven. (My second-place vote went to the women's Olympic hockey team, and I ranked Gushue's rink third.)

To me, there is nothing more Canadian than the national junior team, with players coming together from across the country. Last winter's team wasn't expected to win gold, but with that great Canadian mix of grit and skill won all six games while allowing only six goals.

This year's roster includes eight players from the Ontario Hockey League, seven from the Western Hockey League, four from the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and three from U.S. college teams. The team captain is Montrealer Kristopher Letang, a 19-year-old defenceman with the Val d'Or Foreurs who played seven games with the Pittsburgh Penguins at the beginning of the NHLseason.

But the player many hockey fans will be focusing on is goaltender Carey Price, who was selected fifth overall by the Montreal Canadiens at the 2005 NHL entry draft. After failing to make Team Canada last year, Price has posted a 12-7-0 record with a 2.75 goals-against average and .904 save percentage this season with the WHL's Tri-City Americans.

"One guy who is really growing on me and has totally changed is Carey Price," TSN's Pierre McGuire, who will be covering his fifth world junior tournament, said earlier this week. "He's much more mature E way more fundamentally sound. He's focused on trying to be really solid and it's really impressive to see him. Talking to him this year and talking to him last year, completely different person."

Another player fans will want to watch is Marc Staal, who was named the top defenceman at last year's tournament. Staal, whose brothers Eric (Carolina) and Jordan (Pittsburgh) are already in the NHL, was selected 12th overall by the New York Rangers at the 2005 entry draft, seven picks after Price.

"I gave (the Canadiens) a hard time because they took Price and they passed on Staal and they passed on Luc Bourdon (selected 10th overall by the Vancouver Canucks)," McGuire said.

"And when you look at it, especially coming next year, they're going to have a gigantic need on defence. Unless (Canadiens general manager) Bob Gainey works miracles, I don't know how they keep (Sheldon) Souray, (Craig) Rivet and (Andrei) Markov (who will all be free agents). I just don't know how they do that."

In the meantime, McGuire is as excited as any fan about the world junior tournament.

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