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Caps prospect sneaks onto Canada’s A-list

- The Washington Times - Friday, December 26, 2008

Every December, there's an evaluation camp to determine which players will represent Canada in the International Ice Hockey Federation World Under-20 Championships.

The group of slightly fewer than 40 prospects features first-round NHL draft picks from the previous two drafts and potential high choices for the next two summers. From this group comes a team of 22 players to compete in a tournament the hockey-mad country follows with unparalleled passion.

Someone forgot to tell Stefan Della Rovere that seventh-round picks don't make this team.

Della Rovere, whom the Washington Capitals selected with the 204th pick in the 2008 draft, will be in the lineup Friday when Canada begins its quest for a fifth straight world junior hockey championship gold medal against the Czech Republic at Scotiabank Place in Ottawa.

"It is a really tough team to make," Capitals director of amateur scouting Ross Mahoney said. "The Russians came through and played a couple of games against the Ontario [Hockey] League and Western [Hockey] League, and Team Canada will use those as an evaluation to decide who to bring to the final camp. Stefan wasn't even supposed to play in those games, but someone got hurt. He went in and played in the second game and obviously impressed them. ... He kind of did it the hard way."

How improbable is Della Rovere's inclusion? Hockey Canada, the nation's governing body for amateur hockey, holds a summer camp before the season to begin the evaluation process for the WJC. This summer, 45 players were invited, and Della Rovere wasn't one of them.

But Della Rovere, always known as a player with grit and tenacity, began this season on a tear for the Barrie Colts and hasn't let up.

A year after collecting 13 goals and 32 points in 68 games, Della Rovere has 18 goals and 31 points this season. He's also serving as team captain for the Colts and was one of seven players who wore the "C" for their regular teams at Canada's evaluation camp earlier this month.

Della Rovere has skated on the team's third line in pretournament practices and tuneups, and he's expected to provide energy and toughness for a team guided by longtime NHL coach Pat Quinn.

"I know they were looking for some role players," Mahoney said. "Guys who can play on the third and fourth lines - the checkers and the hardworking types - and Stefan has shown that for them. ... He's a really good two-way player, and he is always in on the forecheck and finishes his checks. He's hard to play against."

The winner of the past four tournaments, Canada is a heavy favorite in its drive to win five straight for the second time in the history of the event, which began in 1974. Despite only playing together as a group for less than a month, there isn't just an expectation to win - a silver medal will be considered a failure.

That the tournament will play out in two arenas in the country's capital only adds to the pressure.

"I talked to [Canada defenseman] Thomas Hickey about it the other day, and the one thing I told him is 'Don't think about the streak; don't worry about trying to keep the streak going,'" Caps defenseman Karl Alzner said. "Everyone knows how big it is and how important it is, but you know that it doesn't just happen. You can't just show up and wear the jersey and win.

"You know you have to do it. It is like being in the gym and wanting to get eight reps. Then you start and you want to stop at six or seven, but then you do whatever you have to do to get to eight. It doesn't matter if you are hurt or tired - you have to do it."

Another Caps property, Russian forward Dmitry Kugryshev, also will play in the tournament. Kugryshev, drafted in the second round in June, has 39 points in 31 games for the Quebec Remparts of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League this season.

He had four points in seven games for Russia as a role player on the 2008 WJC team, but he will be expected to be a key contributor for this tournament.

Alzner played on the past two Canadian teams, including a turn as team captain last year when his club defeated Sweden in overtime in the gold-medal game.

"Everything is a favorite memory," Alzner said. "As soon as I start thinking about it, I get the tingles."