Mathew Barzal hoping to make it two years in a row for Canadian gold
For the second straight season the Seattle Thunderbirds are going to have to spend the majority of December without their top player.
Mathew Barzal played Wednesday night against Spokane but he most likely won’t be in a T-Birds sweater until January. Instead, he is on his way to Etobicoke, Ontario, to take part in Hockey Canada’s World Junior Championship evaluation camp. The World Junior tournament will start the day after Christmas in Helsinki, Finland.
Like Shea Theodore did last season, Barzal is not only hoping to make the team, but bring home the gold medal.
“Its pretty cool just getting the call and going there,” Barzal says. “I’m a pretty competitive guy so I’m not satisfied with just getting the invite. I want to be an impact player on that team.”
Being an impact player is nothing new for Barzal. After being drafted in the first round of last June’s NHL Draft by the New York Islanders he has not only impacted Seattle, he’s been one of the best players in the WHL. As he heads off to Ontario he does so as the T-Birds leading scorer and is tied for third in the WHL’s scoring race.
Barzal will have to crack a pretty talented lineup if he wishes to represent his country. He is one of nine former first-round draft picks competing for the forward spot, a position that may get more crowded if the Vancouver Canucks decide to lend former Calgary Hitmen star Jake Virtanen to Canada.
What Barzal has going for him is that he is one of the premier play-makers in junior hockey. He is the type of player that makes those around him better and is tied for the WHL lead in assists while averaging 1.7 helpers per game this year.
With the goal scorers that Canada will have on the roster, having a distributor like Barzal would be a huge asset. Despite his high pedigree, Barzal knows that he hasn’t made the team yet and that he still has some work to do.
“I’m just going to go there with a humble mindset and do what ever I can to show the coaches that I can play,” he says.
Team Canada is coached by current Victoria Royals head coach Dave Lowry, who should be very familiar with what Barzal can do. The T-Birds have already beaten Lowry’s Royals on three occasions this season and he got a chance to coach Barzal in the recent Canada-Russia Superseries.
Not only did that give Lowry a close look at Barzal, but it helped Barzal as well.
“It was nice to get to know some of those players,” Barzal said of the Superseries. “Get to know the Russian players and how the pace is going to be over there. I thought I played pretty well and had a good showing but again I have to go to Toronto with a humble mindset and work my (tail) off.”
Barzal says that he knows that Coach Lowry is looking for a center who can play at a fast pace as well as compete at both ends of the ice. Those are attributes that Barzal has displayed this year in spades which will go a long way to him making the team.
If he does make the team, it won’t be the first time that Barzal has worn the red and white for Canada. Two summers ago he was a member of Canada’s Ivan Hlinka team and last summer he played for them in the U18 World Championships.
The World Juniors are more popular in Canada than they are in the United States. Canadian kids who play hockey grow up with visions of winning gold for their country in this tournament. It is annual holiday viewing and for Barzal it was no different.
“Behind probably the Stanley Cup and Olympic gold I think the next would be World Juniors,” he says about the honor. “It’s such a big feat and I have so much respect for guys who go there and win. Ever since I was six or seven you watch it every Christmas, you wake up early and it’s pretty exciting. If I get a chance to be part of that it will be a pretty big honor.”
In recent years, the biggest World Junior rivalry has been between the United States and Canada. Traditionally the two hockey powers have faced off on New Year’s Eve in a game that has seen dramatic victories for both countries.
This season, the two will face off in the tournament’s first game on December 26th. It’s a big game and for Barzal, it may pit him against one of his current teammates. Scott Eansor will be leaving next week to compete for a spot on the U.S. squad which could put him in Barzal’s path to gold.
“I know (Tri City’s Brandon) Carlo’s going to be there and hopefully Eansor,” Barzal says of the U.S. team. “I hope he makes the team I think he’s got a good chance so competing against those guys is going to be fun. At the end of the day I’m not focused on that, I’m just focused on my team.”
Seattle’s Alexander True is also on his way to the tournament to play for his native Denmark – as he did last year. If all three Seattle players make it, it will be fun viewing for Seattle’s fans and is a sign of the club’s recent success.
Canada is always one of the favorites in this tournament and this year will be no different. Barzal is hoping to be the 11th T-Bird to play for Canada and if all goes the way he wan’s, the second straight Seattle player to bring home the gold.
Follow Andy Eide on Twitter @andyeide.