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Canada, united, prepares to face a difficult test against host Sweden at the World Junior Championships

GOTHENBURG, Sweden –

Macklin Celebrini dropped back to pass – with a glove instead of a football – and fired to a sliding Fraser Minten.

Conor Geekie and Nate Danielson were fighting nearby, while guards Mathis Rousseau and Scott Ratzlaff had a friendly wrestling match in the corner.

“We’ve been together for a little while now,” Celebrini said Thursday. “We are a team of brothers.”

A delayed group photo plus some time away from the rink to spend time with family and friends offered Canada a brief respite from the enormous expectations that come with wearing the red maple leaf at the World Junior Hockey Championship.

After having a chance to recharge after two victories to open the annual showcase, things are about to get a lot tougher.

Canada will enter the packed Scandinavium arena – a building that resembles Calgary’s Scotiabank Saddledome – against the tournament hosts on Friday night in a showpiece Group A match.

“Competent, dangerous,” Canadian head coach Alan Letang said of Sweden. “Very, very dangerous outside of racing.”

Canada is looking to win a third straight gold medal at the under-20 tournament for the first time since the country won five in a row from 2005 to 2009, but is without a major NHL star , namely Connor Bedard.

“These games are the easiest to prepare for and have energy and be present for,” said Minten, Canada’s captain and Toronto Maple Leafs prospect. “It’s really a lot of fun.”

There are approximately 3,500 red-clad Canucks in Gothenburg for the tournament. Despite these high figures, they will be in the minority on Friday.

“The crowd is going to be electric,” said Letang, who has just one returning player from the 2023 tournament, Montreal Canadiens draft pick Owen Beck. “We will see how we handle this pressure, this momentum.”

Rousseau, who appears poised to make a third straight start, said confidence in the Canadian camp is strong.

“Everyone has the same mindset,” he said. “We are here to do great things. Everyone trusts each other.”

The Swedes, who were scheduled to play Germany on Thursday and are considered favorites along with the United States, beat Latvia 6-0 in their opener.

Canada, meanwhile, dominated Finland 5-2 before beating the Latvians 10-0 on Wednesday. Celebrini, 17 – expected to be the top pick in the 2024 NHL draft – stole the show with a goal and four assists.

“I’ve seen him his whole life outplay and outplay guys two years older than him,” said Minten, who, like the star center, grew up in Vancouver. “That’s to be expected at this point.”

Celebrini and teammate Matthew Wood are two players with recent experience against Friday’s opponent.

And it wasn’t pretty. Canada lost 8-0 to Sweden at the World Under-18 Championships in April in Switzerland.

“A little bit of redemption here,” Celebrini said. “It was only by playing against them that they erased us. Certainly motivation.”

The Swedes are led by Vancouver Canucks draft pick Jonathan Lekkerimaki and Detroit Red Wings prospect Axel Sandin Pellika, who both play professionally in their countries.

Letang said he expects the Canadian defense to be under a lot of pressure, but he is confident his group can handle it with support from the forwards.

“Excited about this challenge,” he said. “That’s all we preach.”

One of those defenders is Ty Nelson.

The Toronto product was not on the initial roster, but was called up from a family Christmas trip to Pittsburgh due to a series of Canadian injuries.

He returned to Toronto, flew to Germany and connected to Gothenburg.

This is where things got interesting this weekend.

A windy day on the west coast of Sweden forced the flight from Frankfurt to briefly land on the tarmac before heading back towards Stockholm.

Nelson’s heart skipped a few beats.

“It was quiet on the plane,” he said. “Everyone was scared. We had to keep the window shade open. I wish we could close it. It was scary. We just landed and came back up. We didn’t expect it.”

The pilot attempted to land again a few hours later, this time successfully, after a brief stopover in the Swedish capital. Nelson, whose absence pushed back the taking of Canada’s official photo until Thursday, had left to join his teammates and try to alleviate the time difference.

“Hard to accept,” he said of participating in the world juniors. “Growing up, you always want to play in this tournament, especially as a Canadian.

“Having the honor of representing our country means a lot.”

He is now part of a group pursuing a dream and preparing for a difficult test.

“We became very close,” Celebrini said. “It’s great to have that chemistry and brotherhood.”

They will need each other Friday night.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 28, 2023.

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