For plenty of Canadian families, watching the world juniors over the holidays is tradition — and that's exactly the case for two of the players' families in Newfoundland.
Alex Newhook of St. John's and Dawson Mercer of Bay Roberts are wearing the Canadian jersey this week in the international hockey tournament hosted in Red Deer, Alta.
In the team's opening game on Boxing Day, both Mercer and Newhook scored twice in a 16-2 scrubbing against Germany. Sunday night against Slovakia, Jordan Spence caught a Mercer rebound and scored the team's first goal; Canada would snag that game 3-1.
For Bo Bennett, Mercer's uncle and former coach, it's been a thrill to watch his nephew once again don the Canadian jersey in the world juniors.
"'Terribly exciting' is probably an understatement," he said.
"First game … I'm waiting and waiting and I look at my wife and I say, 'When those blades touch the ice, look out.'"
Mercer first took the ice around the eight-minute mark, Bennett said, and "the rest is history."
"He goes and, in true Dawson fashion, relentless on the puck … as soon as the goaltender stumbled, Dawson went into high gear right away, and he's got such a strong stick — just one little tap with his stick, and next thing here he is putting it in the back of the net, scoring a huge goal for Canada."
Watching the World Juniors this year is a little bit different: with the COVID-19 pandemic, Bennett said the family isn't able to get together in quite the same way.
"It's different for us, personally, because my son is home quarantining, so typically our whole family would be together and that would be 20 of us … so that's the big difference obviously," Bennett said, adding that, while they may not all be watching in the same house, they've maintained an intense running commentary through text messages.
"They're pretty passionate — loud would be an understatement, for sure. We're all on a group chat so we still see the excitement, and we do the FaceTime thing."
The pandemic has meant family and friends weren't able to attend the world juniors in person, Bennett said.
"The single biggest disappointment for a lot of people here ... [we] were trying to get tickets and wanted to attend, which obviously is a big undertaking for anyone to leave Newfoundland to go to western Canada," Bennett said.
"But I don't think COVID makes it less special or more special. I think the world juniors are special no matter what."
Quarantine a challenge
The pandemic has posed challenges for the team's training as well, Bennett said.
With Mercer able to get some games under his belt in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League this fall, Bennett said he had a bit of an advantage over some of the other Canadians on his team who have been under lockdown for months.
But practice has been seriously impacted, Bennett said, as positive cases of COVID-19 meant the team was locked down for a time.
"Those boys were actually in their room for 14 days, there was no practice. The only training was done by Zoom ... and they would train on their own, there's no buddies in the rooms, there was no out around in a bubble, there was just 14 days in a room," Bennett said.
Just days before its opening game on Christmas Day, Germany had to take nine players off its roster after positive cases were identified. The International Ice Hockey Federation said at the time there were no other positive tests among nine other teams.
With Team Canada going up against Switzerland in Pool A Tuesday night, Bennett said he expects Mercer and his teammates to continue doing what they do — playing excellent hockey.
"Just keep looking for these guys to keep progressing," Bennett said.
"You can see them getting a little bit sharper and a little bit better in every game."