TORONTO — Veterans of the world junior hockey championship say the keys to success are found off the ice: have fun, soak in the experience and try to avoid distractions online.
"The biggest thing is have fun, enjoy it," said Brad Boyes, who won bronze and silver with Canada in 2001 and 2002 respectively. "It really does go fast. It's been a long time since I've been there. The biggest thing is enjoy it, compete, win. You might not have another chance to do it.
"You gotta have fun, that's the biggest thing. Take it for what it is but give it everything. You don't get a second chance sometimes."
Mike Babcock, who guided Canada to gold in 1997, says that having fun is just as important for the coaches, if not more so, because it's up to them to set the tone for the players, both at training camp and at the tournament itself.
"No. 1 is you've got to enjoy yourself," said Babcock, who spoke with head coach Dave Lowry and his staff at Canada's selection camp in Toronto. "You got to get the guys very prepared but you've got to enjoy it. It's a grind and it's hard to win but if you enjoy the process you have a better chance.
"The other thing is that preparation's got to be equal to the opportunity, get really prepared and you've got a way better chance of getting lucky and guys playing well."
This year's championship will be played from Dec. 26 to Jan. 6 in Helsinki, Finland. While the event has become a holiday tradition across Canada, tournament veterans say the weight of the nation's expectations don't hit the players until they've begun to play and messages from home start to pile up.
"Back then, Facebook was the thing to have and you're getting in boxes and people messaging you and it was pretty crazy," said Shawn Matthias, who won gold for Canada in 2008. "I think nowadays with Twitter and Instagram it's probably even more crazy. But it was a great event being overseas with all the Canadian supporters it's something I'll always remember."
Edmonton Oilers rookie sensation Connor McDavid, who won gold with Canada last year, suggested that the players on this year's team should unplug from social media because even well-intentioned messages can build pressure. It's a sentiment that has been echoed by Hockey Canada brass and some other veterans of the team.
This year's team has responded by deleting all social network applications from their phones for the duration of the tournament.
Boyes says the level of scrutiny doesn't really sink in until the on-ice action is underway.
"Emails were starting to come in when I was there so we were starting to get floods of emails and then you realize how important it is," he said. "Social media wasn't as big so you didn't really get a grasp of how big it was until you saw that, just saw all the support.
"You'd always hear people talking about it and you'd always follow it with your buddies and all that stuff but you really get to see the magnitude once people from all across the country can send a message to you, send their best wishes, whatever it is, stories. That's when you realize how big it is."
Goaltender Garret Sparks, who won gold with the United States in 2013, had a different kind of advice. Sparks, who watched the tournament from the stands as the third-string goalie for the Americans, said that Canadian netminders Mackenzie Blackwood, Mason McDonald and Samuel Montembeault should stay focused even if they find themselves scratched.
"All you can do is be the best teammate that you can," said Sparks. "Be ready if you're called upon. Work your hardest in practice. Try to earn an opportunity. Be ready because you never know what happens in those tournaments."
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John Chidley-Hill, The Canadian Press