It is hard to imagine how someone who averaged almost three points a game in November could get lost in the shuffle, but such is the nature of Canada's 2013 world junior team, where Ryan Strome of the Niagara IceDogs flew under the radar during this week's tryout camp.
In part, that was because Strome's place on the team was secured early. Because of their experience and pedigrees, a handful of 19-year-old high draft choices – from centre Ryan Nugent-Hopkins to defenceman Dougie Hamilton and including the high-scoring Strome – were essentially conceded spots on the team. They played the intrasquad game, but watched the exhibitions as coach Steve Spott sifted through all the players on the bubble.
Their time to shine is coming now, with the team on its way to Finland Saturday for a training camp that will, among other things, help them adjust to the 13-hour time change between Western Canada and Ufa, Russia, where the 2013 tournament will be held.
Strome is a New York Islanders draft choice, the fifth player taken in 2011, the same draft where Nugent-Hopkins went No. 1. While Nugent-Hopkins advanced directly to the NHL last year, Strome returned to junior, played for Canada in the 2012 tournament, and has a bronze medal to show for his efforts.
But this time around, thanks in part to the NHL lockout, he has a second chance to go for gold and is ready to make the most of it.
"Just the feeling of standing on the blueline after we lost to the Russians, it really is a terrible feeling," Strome said when asked what motivates him this time. "It doesn't go away very quickly. So hopefully the guys that were there last year can remember that feeling and use it to our advantage this year."
Canada got down to its 23-man roster on Thursday evening, with two 17-year-olds, Nathan MacKinnon and Jonathan Drouin, making the grade along with an undrafted 19-year-old, J.C. Lipon of the Kamloops Blazers. Of the remaining 20 players, 10 are former NHL first-rounders, which gives Spott one of the most talented and experienced teams since, well, since the 2004-05 NHL lockout.
Strome has been on a scoring roll of late – his 62 points in 32 games leads all Canadian Hockey League players in scoring. It is a development he traces back to the low point of his junior season, a game against the Barrie Colts at the end of October in which he was held without a point.
"I didn't play a very good game," Strome recalled. "I remember going home after the game and talking to my dad. I think that was the low point in my career, and one of my worst games. I think I just looked back at that and thought, 'I want to get better each day.' I was working hard in practice, but I had to push myself to an extra level. When I did that, the results started coming and I just haven't slowed down since then."
Playing in Russia adds a new element to the tournament after the last three years, when Canada played in a border city, Buffalo, and then twice before loud, loyal home crowds. That can be both a good and a bad thing, and according to goalie coach Ron Tugnutt, there may actually be less pressure this time around because Canada is going on the road, to a faraway place, with fewer distractions.
"I myself am looking very forward to getting over there, just because there's a lot less phones and stuff like that," Tugnutt said. "We love the coverage that we get, but they won't be seeing as much of themselves on TV. We're kind of our own little island now and I think this'll be good for us."
"Everywhere you are is different," Strome said. "This is a new team, new faces, new coaches and obviously a new element being over there. But really, there are no excuses. It comes down to play on the ice. Hockey Canada takes care of everything for us. We just have to worry about playing."
Strome thought he played "all right for an 18-year-old" last year, but says: "I think I would want to be better this year.
"There are obviously a lot of scorers here this year – tons of skill, tons of scoring, tons of offence. I think they're really looking for guys to play both ends of the ice and have confidence in you. That's what the coaches are looking for."
And if the current NHL lockout ends, what happens to Strome?
"I'm really only thinking about today, tomorrow and the next day," Strome said. "Everything else is out of our control. I wish we could control the situation, but we can't. Everyone here will tell you, this is the task at end. Everyone's excited about being here. We're going to take things day by day and see what happens."