Catching up with Strome

Gene Pereira - Special to the Examiner

Ryan Strome hopes he's not spending Christmas with his family this year.

It's not that the Niagara IceDogs star centre doesn't enjoy spending the holidays in Mississauga with his family.

Far from it.

Strome, you see, has golden plans for this Christmas and that involves helping Canada win a gold medal at this year's world junior championship being held Dec. 26 to Jan. 5 in Edmonton and Calgary.

"You can say as much as you want about how much of a dream it is (to play in the tournament), but to even be at the selection camp is a big honour," said the 18-year-old, who was one of 41 players invited to take part in the national selection camp to be held Dec. 10-14 in Calgary. "I want to be there at Christmastime. I don't want to be home.

"It's definitely a huge stepping stone for me and something I'm really looking forward to having the opportunity to and being a part of," Strome added.

Strome won't be the only one on the ice Saturday night at the Gatorade Garden City Complex with dreams of suiting up for Canada's world junior squad when he and his IceDogs host the Barrie Colts.

The OHL contest will feature six players who have been invited to the national selection camp with an eye on claiming a spot on the 22-player roster.

Along with Strome, three other IceDogs granted an invite include Mark Visentin, Canada's starting goaltender at last year's tournament, and brothers Dougie and Freddie Hamilton, while Barrie forwards Mark Scheifele and Tanner Pearson are also hoping to don a Canadian jersey.

It's been one heck of a ride for Strome since the Colts drafted him eighth overall in the 2009 OHL Priority Selection. Midway through his rookie season in Barrie, he was dealt to Niagara

in a blockbuster deadline deal for stud defenseman Alex Pietrangelo.

In Niagara, Strome came into his own in impressive fashion, finishing third overall in league scoring last season with 33 goals and 73 assists in 65 games.

He was rewarded for his efforts in June when the New York Islanders made the high-scoring forward the fifth overall pick in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft. The Islanders then decided to keep him up with the club through the preseason before returning him to junior two games into the regular season.

"It seems like yesterday I was in Barrie and I got traded," said the six-foot-one, 183-pound centre. "I was a little bit unsure of my future and I just kept working hard and kept reminding myself of what I was here to do, and the confidence I had in myself.

"I've had a pretty successful run here and my hard work, perseverance and support my family has provided has helped me get to where I am right now."

Like all top prospects getting an extended stay with their NHL clubs, Strome was hoping to begin his NHL career, so it was only natural there was a little disappointment when he was sent back to junior.

"He talked about it when he came back," Niagara general manager and head coach Marty Williamson said. "He said, 'Listen, I don't want to be one of those guys who struggles' and yet he still has a little bit, and it's just natural."

Like Strome, the IceDogs, the preseason favourites to win an OHL title, got off to a somewhat slow start, but both appear to be hitting their full stride now.

Niagara comes into the game against Barrie riding a six-game win streak and Strome has played a big role in that resurgence.

Williamson admits he's noticed a big difference in his star since returning from Long Island.

"He's maturing and he's bigger and stronger. He's a good kid," said the former Colts head coach. "He's smarter from the camp and I think he learned an awful lot about what it takes to stay there, and hopefully, for him, he will next year.

"They go through a little bit of a hangover, thinking they have all this knowledge and the league's going to be a little bit easy, and then they find out quickly they better play awfully hard every night," Williamson said. "He's back to doing that and doing a real good job for us."

Part of that maturation process is becoming a complete player and that's been Strome's mission since returning from New York.

"Obviously, I want to have as many points as I can, but one of the biggest things I realized is that there's a lot more to the game," said Strome, who has 14 goals and 13 assists in 20 games and is a plus 11 this season.

"I think I'm doing pretty good this year, but my all-around game is a lot better and I've matured a lot.

"There's a lot of aspects to my game that I feel a lot more comfortable at," he added. "I'm playing at both ends of the ice and I think that's the biggest thing I've learned so far."

Williamson points out that whenever Strome comes into the office to meet with the coaching staff, a great deal of his talk centres around his defensive game.

"If there's a switch down low where he goes to the wing position, he's very conscious about how to play the wing now," Williamson said. "Ryan's a pro. He wants to be a good pro and he's really starting to learn all the aspects of the game and, again, that's why we like him so much."

Strome's main focus remains on helping his team win. He'd love to help Canada win gold then return to Niagara and top it off with OHL title and appearance in the Memorial Cup.

Strome missed out on the Colts run to the OHL final against the Windsor Spitfires in 2009, but believes the experience he gained playing for a winning team and his increased role in Niagara the remainder of his rookie season helped make him a better player.

"Hopefully, I have a long run here," he said. "Right now, we're just trying to focus on each game and I think me, Marty and some of the guys that have been on winning teams can learn a lot from Barrie and how it doesn't get any easier.

"There's always someone trying to beat you every night and I think our team has the right group of guys. We've just got to keep it together and keep on the track we're on now."

Game time tonight is 7 p.m.

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