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Barrie's Lemieux must walk fine line at U18s: Hunter

By Gene Pereira, Special to Postmedia Network

Barrie Colts forward Brendan Lemieux gets up after checking Knights defenceman Nikita Zadorov last season in London. Lemieux, along with Colts teammate Aaron Ekblad, has been named to Canada’s under-18 team for the Ivan Hlinka memorial tournament in the Czech Republic. QMI AGENCY FILES

Barrie Colts forward Brendan Lemieux gets up after checking Knights defenceman Nikita Zadorov last season in London. Lemieux, along with Colts teammate Aaron Ekblad, has been named to Canada’s under-18 team for the Ivan Hlinka memorial tournament in the Czech Republic. QMI AGENCY FILES

Where do our Canadian national junior hockey teams look to fill out the power-forward spots on their rosters?

Well, apparently right here in Barrie.

Or at least it seems that way.

On Monday, Brendan Lemieux became the most recent gritty Colts forward to earn a roster spot on a national junior team.

Lemieux, Colts teammate Aaron Ekblad and the rest of our national under-18 squad left Tuesday for the Czech Republic in hopes of leading Canada to a gold-medal performance at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament, which runs Aug. 5-10.

Lemieux, the Colts' fourth-round pick in 2012 and son of former NHLer Claude, is expected to play the role of that physical, hard-nosed forward opposing teams hate playing against.

It's the same duty that former Colts captain Stefan Della Rovere (2009, 2010) and Anthony Camara (2013) were required to play with our Canadian national under-20 teams.

It's also a role Lemieux is more than happy to play and a Colts tradition he’s thrilled to continue.

“It’s definitely an honour to (be in that role) and hopefully we can put together a great team here,” said the 17-year-old, who played a key part in helping Barrie reach the OHL final last season as a rookie. “I’m just hoping that I can do whatever I can to contribute.”

Lemieux has another thing in common with Della Rovere and Camara. All three were far from surefire bets to represent Canada internationally, but made it near impossible for coaches to let them go after impressive evaluation camps.

Lemieux wasn’t going to let an opportunity like this pass without making sure he left everything on the ice during the four-day selection camp at the MasterCard Centre in Etobicoke. He scored three times during scrimmages, blocked shots, killed penalties and did whatever he could to become one of the 22 players who would be handed a Team Canada jersey.  

“I came in with the expectation of making this team and I’m leaving here (for the Czech Republic) with the expectation of winning gold,” said the six-foot, 194-pound left winger, who finished his first OHL season with six goals and 14 points.

Team Canada brass noticed the fiery winger’s strong play right off the start.

“He had a real good camp. He played hard, played smart,” said Mark Hunter, part of Team Canada’s management group. “We all know he has God-given ability. He can skate. He’s big and strong.

“As long as he plays the right way and plays smart out there ... if he does what he’s supposed to do, he should be on the U20 team when he’s 19 and playing for them, because he’s got all the ability in the world.”

Hunter’s praise for the young power forward doesn’t stop there. Asked about following in the footsteps of Della Rovere and Camara, he believes Lemieux brings more to the table than both NHL draftees.

“I think he’s more skilled than those guys and he adds good grit,” said Hunter, who got a pretty good look at Lemieux when his Knights edged the Colts in last year’s OHL final. “I like how this young man plays. I like how he can make a pass.

“He has good hockey sense. Just as long as he keeps it together. We can’t have penalties and it’s important that he doesn’t get his emotions too high or too low.”

Playing the physical, hard-edged role in a top international tournament requires one to walk a fine line at times, something not lost on Lemieux.

He says he has learned a lot from his dad and professional players such as Dallas Stars forward Eric Nystrom (who trains under Claude) when it comes to playing with an edge and remaining disciplined.

“There’s only a certain few that are willing to pay the price, that do the tough jobs on the ice,” said Lemieux, who is entering his NHL draft season. “There’s a lot of skill guys out there, so it is important to have guys that are willing to be physical, pay a price and be contributors on and off the ice with the team. 

“Typically a power forward is powerful, so there’s only a few powerful guys on the team and it’s good to be part of this (national) team and be one of those guys.”

For Ekblad, the national under-18 selection camp ended much better this time around. Last year, as a 16-year-old, he was a surprise cut.

The talented blue-liner was grinning ear-to-ear while sporting his Team Canada uniform for team pictures on Monday.

“It’s great,” said the now 17-year-old, who is expected to be a top-five pick in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft.

“After being cut from the team last year, it was huge coming back and being able to make my mark here. 

“Hopefully with this great group of guys here we can go win a gold medal in the Czech Republic.”

Not making last year’s team was a bitter pill to swallow for the second OHL player to ever be granted exceptional status. It had been a long time since Ekblad was let go from a team.

“I was very upset,” he admitted.

Still, Ekblad was determined to learn from it and move on.

He was a force on the Barrie blue-line last season and knows the experience at under-18 selection camp, playing with Team Ontario at the under-17 world challenge and last year’s long playoff run with the Colts that ended in a heartbreaking, last-second loss in Game 7 to the Knights made him a better player.

“You’ve got to kind of embrace the failures sometimes,” said the six-foot-four, 213-pound defenceman.

“Failure can bring a lot of things. It can make you down or you can bring it back up. It’s how you respond and everything like that,” Ekblad added.

“How I respond (from that tough loss) to London, to being cut from the team, it all determines how the season is going to go and how we’re going to win this tournament.” 

Ekblad left no doubt this time, but even then Hunter already knew that leaving the Belle River native off the team wasn’t an option this year.

After all, Hunter, the Knights' general manager, got a first-hand look at Ekblad during last season’s championship series.

He noticed how he had taken his game to another level and showed poise. Hunter could see a relaxed, young star who seemed very confident in himself.

“He played a man’s game out there,” he said of Ekblad. “We were impressed with him.

“He showed leadership and a will to win,” added Hunter. “We all know he has great talent, but now you want to see him take a hold of teams and I thought he, along with (Mark) Scheifele, was a big part of that team (in Barrie).

“He seems in a really good place right now, which is important for his career.”

Coming into what is the biggest season of his hockey career, Ekblad was determined that he was going to be prepared, making a concentrated effort this summer to improve his fitness level and his game.

He passed up a chance to go on a family vacation to continue with his workout program under Level 3 Poliquin International Certification Program national strength coach Erik Brinkman at BodyX Fitness Solutions in Tecumseh.

He especially wanted to improve his foot speed.

“We just sat down and I told him I needed to get faster. I needed to get my feet moving a little more,” Ekblad said.

“He just kind of helped me shave off a little bit of body fat and helped me get a little bit faster,” Ekblad added.

Leading the under-18s to gold and a strong start to the season with the Colts could put Ekblad in the conversation for a spot on the blue-line with Canada’s entry at the 2014 world junior championship in Malmo, Sweden.

One thing that is certain is that Ekblad will play a leading role on Canada’s blue-line at this year’s Ivan Hlinka tournament.   

“He’s going to be our quarterback,” Hunter said. “He’s a top-four (defenceman) and he’s going to get lots of minutes here. Part of doing what he does best is making sure he clears pucks, gets pucks out quickly, playing really strong defensively and contributing a little bit offensively.”

Just as good for both Ekblad and Lemieux, the two teammates and good friends will get to experience this together.

“Leaning on Aaron has been awesome,” Lemieux said. “He’s been my best friend, roommate and brother for the last year, and we’ve just really grown together as players and as people.

“He really helps me with my off ice and on ice and I try to help him with whatever I can. It’s just really cool they have us rooming together. Everybody else always changes roommates, yet we always stay together.

“It’s really cool to be a part of something like this and it’s awesome to go through it with my best buddy.”

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