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St. John's native shows outer composure, deals with inner hurt in the wake of being left off national junior team
Alex Newhook looked the questioners straight in the eye and answered with composure, but there was really no hiding his inner hurt Thursday night after the 18-year-old from St. John’s learned he was being cut from Canada’s world junior men’s hockey team.
“I thought I showed a good effort here and I thought I deserved to be on the team, but at the end of the day, it is what it is and I wish (the team) the best of luck,” Newhook told reporters after the Canadian roster was pared down to 24 following this week’s selection camp in Oakville, Ont.
Newhook’s exclusion led to the expected reaction of dismay, chagrin and disappointment from his supporters and from Newfoundlanders in general.
But it wasn’t just provincial nationalism or emotion generated by friendship that had its say about Newhook’s fate.
“Honestly, other than Newhook and (defenceman Thomas) Harley, I think they kept all of the right players,” said Scott Wheeler, who covers hockey for The Athletic, in a reply on his Twitter account.
“And Harley was (in) tough given that Canada has (Ty) Smith and (Jared) McIsaac as returnees on the left side, plus (Bowen) Byram. (But) Newhook’s omission is crazy,”
TSN’s Bob McKenzie, who knows the world junior process as much as anyone, Tweeted he felt, “Newhook was one of the better players,” in the junior team’s two-game exhibition series against a university all-star side.
McKenzie qualified the observation by adding,“Obviously, more than the last 48 hours goes into it.”
Three of the four NCAA players at the camp, including Newhook, a freshman at Boston College, were jettisoned on Thursday, adding to the long-running narrative about national junior team selectors having a bias against university players. That the Canadian world junior team’s head coach is Dale Hunter and the general manager is his brother Mark, only amplifies this view, given the Hunters are the owners as well as the coach and GM, respectively, of the OHL’s London Knights.
Some balancing weight should be added to other side of the speculation scale, however.
Newhook, a left-handed shooting natural centre, was in a particularly tough competition at the position in Oakville. Known best for his offence, he did show versatility with solid penalty-killing work and when moved to the wing (including on the right side) during the exhibition games. But other pivots were part of those experiments, too.
“I thought he was solid,” answered Mark Hunter when asked about Newhook. “I thought he played with good speed. In general, I thought Newhook was good, but you know what? Sometimes it comes down to decisions from within the inner circle.”
Not much in the way of revelation there. In any case, besides “the inner circle,” there were happenings outside the camp that were decision-influencers, too. When Joe Veleno and Barrett Hayton were released by their NHL teams for national junior-team duty, it made the situation even more challenging for Newhook.
“Anytime you don’t make a team you want to be part of, it’s definitely in the back of your head to prove them wrong and take that forward. It’s definitely something I’m going to do, something I have to do.”
Veleno, who his playing with the Detroit Red Wings’ AHL farm team, and Hayton, who is on the Arizona Coyotes’ roster, didn’t attend the selection camp. But as left-handed shooting centres and players who were part of Canada’s last world junior entry, it can fairly said they probably impacted Newhook’s chances of making the 2020 team more that anyone else.
Put it down as part of that “48 hours” observation by McKenzie.
So too, more than likely, is Newhook’s age.
Only three forwards younger than him — Alexis Lafrenière and Quinton Byfield, the presumptive first two picks in the 2020 NHL Entry Draft, and fellow Newfoundlander Dawson Mercer — survived Thursday’s cuts.
Without a doubt, junior team selectors like experience, and for many of them, age equals experience, even when there is only a difference of months involved. What’s more, when faced with choices between players who are deemed pretty much equal, those making the choices will often lean to those in their last year of world junior eligibility. For supporting evidence, note that seven of the nine players cut Thursday, including Newhook, can play in the 2021 tourney.
So can Mercer, for that matter. But for the 18-year-old from Bay Roberts, his immediate concern is whether he will get to play in the 2020 competition in the Czech Republic.
Thursday’s trimming did not reduce the Canadian roster to the necessary 23 players. There are 14 forwards remaining and there could be one more coming, as the Hunters await word on whether the NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks will make Kirby Dach available. That means one or two more forwards will have to go.
The headline for a story on Hockey Canada’s website provided a clue to the necessity to see this as a tentative roster.
“Twenty-four players selected to move forward with Canada’s national junior team,” it read.
In camp, Mercer benefitted from being a right shot. But the opposite might be true in the coming days, since both Dach and Aidan Dudas, who is injured but who is thought to be close to being cleared to play, are both right-shooting, too.
Nevertheless, Mercer is set to travel this weekend to Europe, where Canada has two pre-tournament games — Dec. 19 against Switzerland and Dec. 23 against Finland — before the world juniors begin Boxing Day in the Czech cities of Trinec and Ostrava.
It means Mercer has a lot to think about these days. A third-year player in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, he will be reportedly dealt from the Drummondville Voltigeurs to the Chicoutimi Sagueneens in the upcoming QMJHL trade period.
Chicoutimi, which is second overall in the league, is looking to win its first Presidents Cup in a quarter century. According to Jonathan Habashi of the Journal Express in Drummondville, the Sagueneens think Mercer will be a difference-maker in that quest, so much so that they are sending a package that includes two first-round draft picks, two second-rounders and a young player to the Voltigeurs in the deal.
While Mercer waits to see where he will be going in the coming days and weeks, Newhook knows he will be back at Boston College after Christmas.
By then, his disappointment might have abated a bit, but it’s a certainty that his resolve will be stronger.
“Anytime you don’t make a team you want to be part of, it’s definitely in the back of your head to prove them wrong and take that forward,” answered Newhook when asked if he was going to use this past week’s experience to fuel his inner fire.
“It’s definitely something I’m going to do, something I have to do.”