McKeown looks for next U18 gold

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TORONTO – Team Canada coach Dale Hunter has picked his team, and the players left for an overseas flight Tuesday afternoon en route to the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament that will be played in Breclav, Czech Republic and Piestany, Slovakia from 5-10 August.

Among his selections are two players from the gold-medal winning team at the IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship in Sochi last April, namely defenceman Roland McKeown and forward Sam Bennett.

McKeown has earned a more prominent role on the team which has won the Hlinka the last five years in a row. “I prided myself on being a penalty killer on the team in April,” he said before boarding the plane. “I played a different role then than I will here. I think I’m a mobile defenceman who can move the puck, play both ends of the rink and play both the power play and penalty kill.”

The differences between the IIHF U18 team and the Hlinka team are significant. For starters, the IIHF U18 team is selected much like Canada’s senior World Championship team in that the only players who can play are those not involved in the playoffs, which run concurrently with the IIHF event. For the Hlinka event, the challenge to earn a spot on the team is more daunting.

“In April, the team was already picked, so there was no competing for spots,” McKeown explained. “It was more about learning the system. When we got here in Toronto a few days ago, it was all compete, compete, which was great. It’s been a great experience at this camp and a great chance for a lot of these guys – and myself – to prove ourselves. We really had to battle among the 42 guys who were here to earn a spot on the team.”

Of course, winning gold in April gave McKeown the inside edge for making the Hlinka team, and that led to greater confidence, more relaxed play, and that bigger role he alluded to.

“The organization at Hockey Canada is great,” he continued. “There was a similar feel between both camps, so I felt a lot more comfortable coming to the camp and knowing what to expect.”

Winning gold in April was doubly satisfying, not only for the victory but for its location – the main venue for the Olympics in Sochi, Russia next February. “It was unbelievable playing there, knowing the Olympics were going to be there,” McKeown enthused. “We’ll watch the NHLers and the gold-medal game next year, which will be unbelievable. Winning gold there was the best feeling I’ve had in my life. It was surreal. When I watch the Olympics on TV, it will bring back so many memories.”

The hockey world of the 21st century is so much different than even ten or 15 years ago. Consider that McKeown played a full season last year as a 16-year-old with the Kingston Frontenacs, then played the U18, and now at the end of July is going to Europe for another tournament prior to the opening of training camp for Kingston’s 2013-14 season! When does he sleep?

“I took a couple of weeks off after Russia,” he chuckled, “and then I trained with Gary Roberts at the Fitness Institute here in Toronto and feel much stronger now. He does some really cool stuff, technical drills that make you more mobile and flexible. I don’t feel worn out at all.”

A native of tiny Listowel, Ontario, McKeown moved to Toronto to play midget before being drafted into the OHL. His GM is Doug Gilmour and head coach is Todd Gill, two more Toronto connections. But there is even one more connection he would like to make, and that will entail a spot on next year’s U20 team. The 2015 tournament will be played in Toronto and Montreal.

“I’m going to focus on the U18, and if I hear my name called for the U20 camp next summer, I’ll be more than thrilled,” McKeown said. Of course nothing is certain, but chances are better than good he’ll be playing at the ACC in a year and a half with Canada’s national junior team. After all, as his Twitter account notes, “Where you end up is entirely up to you.”

ANDREW PODNIEKS