© Nathan Denette, The Associated Press
Team Canada forward Mark McNeill, left, hits Team USA forward Ryan Hartman, right, during first period semi-final IIHF World Junior Championship hockey action in Ufa, Russia on Jan. 3, 2013.
The captain is back.
Mark McNeill returned to Prince Albert Raiders practice on Tuesday after leaving on Dec. 21 to join Team Canada for the World Junior Championship in Russia.
It may take his body some time to catch up, however.
“I think I’ve flipped the switch and I’m back in Raider mode,” he said. “It’s just my body adjusting to the time change and the long travel that I’m having trouble with right now. I just have to get back to my sleeping schedule and eating healthy and drinking lots of water and I’ll be fine in a day or two.”
McNeill and the Raiders face the Regina Pats on Wednesday at the Art Hauser Centre. Game time is 7 p.m.
The entire journey was for McNeill was unexpected after he was cut from Team Canada on Dec. 13. He returned to Prince Albert and played until the Christmas break began, when he headed home to Edmonton.
His dad woke him up at 6:30 a.m. on Dec. 21 to tell him that Hockey Canada was on the phone. He was summoned to replace Charles Hudon, who was nursing a back injury.
After packing his bags, he and his parents drove to Calgary airport, where Raiders staff sent his equipment.
He flew to Frankfurt, Germany, and from there caught a plane to Helsinki, Finland to meet up with the team.
“A lot of emotions running through me at that time,” he said. “A lot of excitement for sure.”
McNeill had played with many of the guys at the under 18 team when he represented Canada. He knew others from the Western Hockey League.
He said the team came together very quickly.
“I think we were pretty close. The guys can closely relate to each other,” he says. “We’re all CHL players, we’re all Canadian. We’re all there for the same reason, to go for gold.”
He said there was no shortage of leadership in the room, with all but his roommate JC Lipon of the Kamloops Blazers either a captain or assistant captain on their CHL club.
As always, that means that players have to accept roles they are not always accustomed to filling. It even meant a change of position for the Raiders captain.
McNeill finished fourth overall in the tournament with a faceoff win percentage of 63.46 per cent on 52 draws, a remarkable statistic for someone who plays the wing in Prince Albert.
While he says he struggled at draws off the start, he grew into the role.
“The centre thing came back to me and the draws starting clicking real well,” he said. “It’s not only me winning it; my wingers were really good at coming in and getting those loose pucks and winning them back.”
It was part of the job description for McNeill, who knew he had been summoned to fill a more defensive role.
“That’s part of the reason they brought me over,” he says. “They know I’m a versatile player. I can be a guy who’s responsible on both sides of the puck. I didn’t necessarily see a lot of ice time in the offensive department, whether it was powerplay or getting out there for an offensive zone draw, but they really relied on me defensively to shut down the other team’s top line.”
McNeill says as a result of that assignment, he saw lot of his linemate Leon Draisaitl, who was playing for Team Germany. While Canada won the round-robin game 9-3, McNeill came away with a new appreciation for his Raider teammate.
“You realize how good he is playing with you when you’re moving the puck back and forth and making plays, but when you’re trying to stop him from making those plays, it gets harder,” he said. “It was hard shutting down a guy like Leon out there.”
The two had a few moments to chat after the game.
When asked if any special moments from the tournament stuck out for him, McNeill said it was hard for him to pick.
“I think the first game that we beat Russia, playing in Russia, just the crowd and their chants and these weird whistles they would do, it was just a whole different lifestyle,” he said. “It’s hard to explain. It was a completely different world.”
Unfortunately for McNeill and his Canadian teammates, the tournament ended with a 5-1 loss to the Americans that knocked them out of the gold medal game and then a 6-5 overtime loss to Russia that cost them a bronze medal.
“After that American loss, everyone was feeling down and really disappointed that we’re not going there for the real reason that we’re there, to go for gold,” he said. “Then we sort of get over that the next morning as much as you can and we tried to focus on coming back to our country with a medal.
“That loss in Russia to Russia in front of their home crowd was really tough. It’s hard to say which was tough because they were both so disappointing.”
Even with the sting of those losses, McNeill says it was an amazing adventure.
He has represented his nation at both U-17 and U-18 tournaments, but even McNeill was bowled over by this experience.
“Nothing quite compares to representing your country for world juniors. It’s something you grow up watching on TV. A true honour is what it was.”