|Team Russia players get a close-up look at Team WHL|
goaltender Calvin Pickard during a Tuesday practice
at Interior Savings Centre in Kamloops.
(Photo by Keith Anderson/Kamloops Daily News)
Daily News Sports Reporter
There were plenty of laughs and good times on the Interior Savings Centre ice Tuesday as Team WHL practised together for the first time.
Head coach Ryan Huska is expecting that to change tonight.
Huska, the head coach of the Kelowna Rockets, will lead Team WHL into a Subway Super Series game against a touring Russian side at 7 o'clock. This is the fifth of six games in the Subway Super Series, which is in its eighth year, and the Russians carry a 2-2 record into tonight.
Over the previous seven years, the Russians had been barely better than terrible, winning just six times in 42 games against their CHL opposition. Five of those victories came against QMJHL teams, with the WHL's lone loss coming in Cranbrook on Nov. 28, 2007, when Russia won 5-1.
The Russians have looked good this year, beating the QMJHL twice - 5-4 in Saint John on Nov. 8 and 4-3 in Drummondville on Nov. 10 - before losing twice to the OHL, 4-0 in London on Thursday and 2-1 in a shootout in Sudbury on Monday.
“You find out in a hurry that this isn't just a skate-around game - we're here to win,” said Huska, who was an assistant coach last year. “I think the players, they understand that now. There's a lot of pride on the line, especially this year since the series actually means something.”
In 14 games against the Russians, the WHL has won 13 of them and has outscored its opposition 65-21.
The first four games of this Super Series have been televised (as will tonight's, on Rogers Sportsnet), so the WHL players have had a chance to see what they will be up against.
“They're definitely faster, stronger and more skilled this year,” said Kamloops Blazers forward Chase Schaber. “We're going to be ready to go too, and it's going to be a fun game.”
The Super Series was created in 2003 and has replaced the WHL's all-star game.
But only a few of the first 14 WHL-Russia games have lived up to expectations and, more often than not, the WHL has run away with them. Of those 14 games, Team WHL has won eight by three or more goals.
The games were close in 2009 - the WHL won 2-1 in Victoria on Nov. 25 and 4-2 in Kelowna the next night.
Now, with the series tied 2-2, the WHL isn't planning to let its visitors win the series for the first time.
“Every year, we want to try to show that the WHL is the best league,” said Spokane Chiefs defenceman Jared Cowen, who will wear the captain's C for Team WHL tonight. “When they come, they expect the WHL to be the toughest league and I think we'll do our best to show that (tonight).”
But there's more than pride at stake for the Team WHL players - the series also serves as an opportunity for Hockey Canada's scouts to take a long look at potential players for the World Junior Championship, scheduled for Dec. 26-Jan. 5 in Buffalo, N.Y.
The last time a Super Series game was played in Kamloops, on Nov. 30, 2006, three key members of Canada's gold-medal winning junior team contributed to the WHL's 8-1 victory.
Carey Price, who would be named tournament MVP at the 2007 world junior tournament in Sweden, turned aside 22 shots in Team WHL's victory, while Cody Franson and Darren Helm each scored a goal.
“No one's really talked about (world juniors) so far, but I think some guys are thinking about it,” said Cowen, who played on the Canadian team that finished second at the WJC in Saskatoon and Regina in January. “Obviously, this is the first stepping stone towards that - if you play well, you have a good chance of getting asked to camp.”