With Boxing Day near, Marty Williamson settles in front of his television for a preview of a favourite holiday classic for many Canadians.
It isn’t until he reaches a twist in the story that the coach of the Ontario Hockey League’s Niagara IceDogs realizes he has seen this picture before.
At this time, the storytellers, or hockey commentators, inform the viewers during Canada’s world junior exhibition contest against Finland of Canadian forward Ryan Strome’s struggles during the recent selection camp.
Prior to Team Canada’s final round of cuts on Dec. 14, the same broadcaster reported that the IceDogs centre may have played his way off the team. In the end, the 2011 New York Islanders first-round draft pick made the squad.
“Watching the [Canada-Finland] game and hearing the criticism, I just got a gut feel he’s going to be one of the biggest impacting guys on that team,” said Williamson over the phone with the OHL’s weeklong Christmas hiatus in full swing.
“He’ll take that pretty serious, and dig in and probably get a little quieter, but he’ll be pretty conscious about what the coach wants.”
What Canadian head coach Don Hay has told the 18-year-old Strome, a gifted playmaker with great vision who lit up the OHL with 106 points a year ago, is he has a good skill and to keep battling.
The Mississauga, Ont., native endured similar struggles shortly after returning to Niagara in mid-October following the Islanders training camp. Despite carrying a 13-game points streak into mid-November, he wasn’t playing a strong overall game.
"I think he thought he could come back [from the NHL camp] and [get] two, three points a game,” said Williamson, who took Strome eighth overall in the 2009 OHL Priority Selection while coaching the Barrie Colts. “He started playing too much with his head and not enough with his legs, trying to be a little bit cute [with the puck].
“It wasn’t working for him and he got a little frustrated and that never works for you. It started to dig into him a bit and we had to show him some video. I said, ‘This isn’t you. This isn’t the way you play.’”
Reached in Alberta, where Canada kicks off the world junior tournament Dec. 26 against Finland at Rexall Place in Edmonton, Strome said he wasn’t aware of the recent remarks about his performance, and is confident his skills and work ethic will get him through any tough times.
Strome, who has 33 points in 24 OHL starts this season, is focused on keeping his game simple at the world juniors and plans to take what’s given to him on the ice.
Away from the rink, it’s about team bonding — eating meals together, going bowling and hanging out in the players’ lounge where Strome and company have kept busy sharpening their Xbox and table tennis skills.
“The team bonding [in the players’ lounge] and around the dressing room is the most important and I think the guys are really starting to come together,” said Strome, who was left off Canada's under-18 team a year ago.
Back home, Strome’s parents, Chris and Trish, “keep his shoulders below the clouds,” reminding their son to work hard each day and not take any of his accomplishments for granted.
Tavares lends support
And in New York, Strome, whom Williamson projects as a longtime NHLer, is receiving support from his Islanders buddies, most notably star centre John Tavares. He represented Canada at the 2008 and 2009 world juniors, capturing tourney MVP honours in Ottawa three years ago.
“A few guys in New York were telling me that next to the [Stanley Cup playoffs], this is probably one of the best experiences for them and the most exposure you’re going to get as a player,” said Strome, adding Tavares told him “to embrace the experience and that nothing’s going to be given to you because you’re Canada [the perennial tournament favourites].”
Williamson, who coached Tavares with the Ontario under-17 team in 2006, said the Islanders’ star centre reminds him in many ways of Strome, who was nominated the most improved player and best playmaker in the 2011 OHL Eastern Conference coaches poll.
“He was so mature in his press conferences and the way he spoke to the media and I was like, ‘Ww, this kid’s different,’” said Williamson of Tavares. “And then I would walk in the dressing room and he would be jumping around and they would have goofy music going and he [Tavares] was like a 16-year-old kid like everyone else.
“In a lot of ways it reminds me of Ryan, who’s a real good kid with a real good disposition. In the morning skates, he has a good smile, he’s goofing around, having fun with the guys. Then, come game time, he’s a pretty serious player. He’ll still talk to the people around him, but you can see there’s a little bit of a switch that goes off in him … that he gets himself ready to play.
“You don’t always have to be on guard. John just oozes leadership and I think it makes Ryan feel awful good. It reassures you when you see similar things [in someone else].”
Williamson also noted Tavares’s work ethic and how he has worked to get better at his game, not just improve at what he’s good at.
“I think that’s a great experience for Ryan because he’s got things he needs to work on,” Williamson said. “His hands are wonderful but he doesn’t need to be practising that all the time. He has to get stronger and I think he can improve on his skating and edges and how dynamic he can be on the ice.
“He’s the type of kid that wants to make a difference.”
If he succeeds in Alberta, Canadians will quickly forget about any pre-tournament struggles.
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