Shane Wright is well aware of the names to come before him.
Wayne Gretzky, Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid are among the 16 year olds to suit up for Canada at the world junior hockey championship.
Wright is going to do everything in his power to join that list.
“It’s definitely crossed my mind,” the phenom said on a video conference call with reporters Wednesday. “If I’m lucky enough to make the team it would be really special.
“And really an honour for me to be in the same category as those guys.”
The Canadians, who won gold at last year’s under-20 tournament in the Czech Republic and have topped the podium a record 18 times, are scheduled to open the tournament Boxing Day against Germany in Edmonton. The city is hosting the 10-team event with a similar bubble setup to the NHL’s summer restart that managed to keep COVID-19 at bay, pending federal government approval.
Granted exceptional status to play junior a season early at 15 years old — following the likes of McDavid, John Tavares and Aaron Ekblad in the OHL — Wright registered 39 goals and 66 points in 58 games as a rookie in 2019-20 before the novel coronavirus pandemic forced an abrupt end to the schedule.
‘Wasn’t too nervous walking in’
Like most of the players vying for a spot on Canada’s roster, he hasn’t played a competitive game since March. But Wright, who said participating at these world juniors was a goal he set before last season, took part in Hockey Canada’s virtual summer camp and trained hard during the long layoff to add more muscle on his six-foot, 190-pound frame.
And while he’s three years younger than most of the players inside the national program’s bubble in Red Deer, that’s basically been par for the course throughout his hockey journey.
“I’m used to being the youngest guy on the team,” Wright said. “I know I’m here for a reason. I know I’m here because I can make this team, I’m good enough to make this team.
“I wasn’t too nervous walking in … mostly excitement.”
While his talents are jaw-dropping and he already sits as the favourite to go No. 1 at the 2022 NHL draft, Wright faces stiff competition for a roster spot. Canada’s forward group includes no fewer that 20 first-round picks, and Alexis Lafreniere — the top selection in 2020 and the MVP of last year’s world juniors — isn’t part of the contingent as things stand.
Tic-Dach-Toe<a href=”https://twitter.com/kdach77?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>@kdach77</a> opening up his bag of tricks! 🧙♂️ <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/WorldJuniors?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#WorldJuniors</a> <a href=”https://t.co/kKHhHvBaQS”>pic.twitter.com/kKHhHvBaQS</a>
If he does make the team, Wright would join a group that includes Gretzky, Crosby, McDavid, Eric Lindros and Jason Spezza to don the red and white at just 16.
“It’s pretty cool being a young player named to this team,” Wright said. “No matter what age you are, it’s an honour being named to this team, even just being invited to the camp.”
Canadian head coach Andre Tourigny said after the initial roster was announced that including the youngster was a no-brainer.
“He’s a hell of a player,” Tourigny said. “That’s why it was important to have him.”
Potential gold-medal birthday
And with his day job being behind the bench for the OHL’s Ottawa 67’s, the coach also got an up-close look at Wright after scouting him in minor hockey and taking in some of Kingston’s training camp last fall.
“Then we saw him early in the season and said, ‘Oh, he got much better,”‘ Tourigny recalled. “Then I saw him at Christmas and it was, ‘Oh my God, he’s really good.’ And then I saw him at the end of the season and I said, ‘This guy’s a superstar.’
Asked if he views himself as a scorer or a playmaker — the majority of elite NHL centres have tended to be pass-first in recent years — Wright didn’t want to put himself in just one box.
“I feel like I can do both,” he said. “I feel like I can score when I need to, but I feel like I can set up guys as well.
“I try to take whatever opportunity is there.”
And echoing the words of many of the game’s greats, Wright indicated he’s never satisfied.
“I would consider myself a perfectionist,” he said. “I’m never comfortable with where my skills are at. I’m never complacent with where my game’s at.
“I’m always trying to find little things to make myself better, little things to improve on, and little things that give me the edge over my opponent.”
The gold-medal game at the world juniors always goes Jan. 5 — which just so happens to be Wright’s birthday.
He’d like nothing more than to mark his 17th time around the sun by first making the team, and then grabbing some new hardware.
“It’s always special for me,” he said of the tournament finale. “It’s a nice birthday tradition.”
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