Canada goes for gold at the World Juniors tonight
Drake Batherson has flown under the radar for most of his hockey career. He wasn't invited to Canada's Summer Showcase this year, a camp where the junior national team's roster begins to take shape. Even Canadian head coach Dominique Ducharme, who coaches against Batherson in the QMJHL, wasn't really aware of him.
But he is now.
Batherson had a hat trick to lead Canada past the Czech Republic 7-2 on Thursday in the semifinal of the world junior hockey championship. The impressive performance put him into a three-way tie with Czech forward Filip Zadina and American forward Kieffer Bellows for the goal-scoring lead at the tournament.
"He came in, had to fight for his spot until the last moment," said Ducharme, whose Drummondville Voltigeurs face Batherson's Cape Breton Screaming Eagles twice per season. "But we could see from one day to the other he was always getting better, adjusting. He's a smart kid and works hard and he's got great skills.
"You could see how quickly he was adjusting and feeling more comfortable. He just keeps going and he's getting better.
Batherson's performance was instrumental in helping Canada advance to the gold-medal game for the second-straight year. The Canadians will play Sweden in the tournament's final on Friday night.
Sam Steel, Maxime Comtois, Jordan Kyrou and Boris Katchouk also scored for Canada. Carter Hart made 18 saves in net for the win.
Two of Batherson's goals came in the exact same way: defenceman Cale Makar would fire a low shot from the point that Batherson would deflect into the net.
"I never really played that position before until this tournament," said Batherson. "In that practice there a couple weeks before the tournament, I was really working on my tips and stuff like that and it’s a new position and I seem to be liking it there."
Batherson, who was selected in the fourth round of the 2017 draft by the Ottawa Senators, was motivated to work extra hard after Hockey Canada passed him over for its Summer Showcase.
"This is my first international experience, representing Team Canada," said Batherson. "Not getting the invite this summer, I saw a few guys last year who got a good start and got an invite to camp and ended up making the team so I thought I could be like that and it ended up working out."
He has 17 goals and 22 assists in 24 games with the Screaming Eagles this season. He confirmed at the world juniors that he's been traded from Cape Breton to the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada, a team coached, managed and co-owned and by Joel Bouchard, Hockey Canada's team lead for the junior team.
Zadina had a pair of goals for the Czech Republic to keep pace with Batherson and Bellows. Czech goalie Josef Korenar stopped 17-of-23 shots in 36:58 of work before he was replaced by Jakub Skarek. He turned aside 14-of-16 shots in relief.
Sweden beat the host Americans 4-2 in the tournament's other semifinal earlier Thursday. The Czechs will face the U.S. in the bronze-medal game on Friday afternoon.
Hart won his game within the game in the first intermission. One of the Canadian goalie's idiosyncrasies is that he likes to be the last player off the ice at the end of each period. The backup goaltenders of Finland and Switzerland both tried to outwait him earlier in the tournament, with Hart having to resort to hiding in the tunnel to deke out Swiss goalie Matteo Ritz.
A veteran of last year's silver-medal team, Hart says Canada will be ready for Sweden.
"I know they've got a couple good forwards up front, some returning from last year, but it looks like they're playing good hockey too so it should be a good battle tomorrow," said Hart.
Defenceman Victor Mete was in the lineup after missing Canada's 8-2 quarterfinal win over Switzerland on Tuesday with a lower-body injury. The Montreal Canadiens prospect had been hurt in Canada's 4-3 shootout loss to the United States on Dec. 29 and played limited minutes against Denmark on Dec. 30.