When Mitch Love was skating on the outdoor rink his dad built for him in the Johnston Subdivision in Quesnel, he always dreamed of scoring the big goal for Canada.
While those dreams can no longer come true, he is helping the next generation of Canadian hockey stars turn their backyard dreams into reality from behind the bench.
The Quesnel native and coach of the WHL’s Saskatoon Blades is preparing to coach Team Canada at the World Junior Championships for a second consecutive year. He won a gold medal with the team at the start of 2020.
“You’re always used to scoring a big goal in the World Juniors final, winning a gold medal or winning a Stanley Cup, scoring on that outdoor rink,” he said. “You never really envision doing it as a coach, but being a part of it, watching these kids put a ton of work into this thing, how passionate they are and how prideful they are to be Canadians and play in this event — it’s just as special to be on a coaching staff and be a part of it.”
Love spoke from quarantine inside an Alberta hotel room, preparing to restart a Hockey Canada selection camp after positive COVID-19 tests. All games at the World Juniors will be played in Edmonton with no fans, similar to how the NHL playoffs were conducted this summer.
“[A bubble] is the only way to make it work,” Love said. “The NHL was a great example of that in June, July and August, and they did a phenomenal job of keeping those players’ safety at heart, and that’s exactly what we want to do with our players and our staff, and all the other countries.”
Love’s role on Team Canada is on the defensive side of the rink. He’s not only working with defencemen, but also working on the penalty kill, defensive zone faceoffs and end-of-game situations when the team could be clinging to a slight lead.
The World Juniors are already a marquee event in Canada, but Love guessed a lack of other sports on the calender could spark wider interest in the tournament this year, especially in the States, where he spends the off-season.
“Hockey is not necessarily at the top of the food chain of major sports in the U.S., but this event is going to be heavily watched,” he said. “I know our guys are absolutely excited as heck to perform and compete against other countries.”
It isn’t clear what situation the WHL will be in when Love returns from the World Juniors bubble. While the league has announced plans to begin play on Jan. 8, local health orders could delay the start date.
Each team will only play games within their division in 2021. For the East Division’s Saskatoon Blades, that means they’ll only be playing other Saskatchewan-based teams and the two Manitoba-based teams.
Love coached the Blades to a playoff spot in the WHL before play was suspended earlier in 2020.
The five B.C.-based teams, including the Prince George Cougars, will only play other B.C. teams.
”Everything sounds like we’re moving forward,” Love said. “Each province and state has different restrictions that will hamper some start dates, fans or no fans. In our case in Saskatchewan, everything sounds like it’s moving in the right direction, and we’ll be having training camp here at the end of December.”
Love said the biggest challenge during the pandemic has been ensuring players are continuing their development — a tall task for players used to spending most of their time on the ice playing competitive games.
“Our league is driven to development and pushing these young men to maximize their capabilities and showcase themselves for pro opportunities,” he said. “When you’ve been away from the game for nine months and not played a competitive game, that’s hard for these young men.”
Love said Saskatoon hopes to turn any scheduling quirks into positives, using the extra time to train players in different ways.
“We’ve really exhausted a lot of energy in terms of trying to find ways to be creative with our training and development, whether it’s on the ice or off the ice with our players,” he said. “We feel like if it’s a weekend schedule, we’ll have lots of time to continue to train and get stronger in the weight room, along with their brains — watching video of themselves, learning the game, the tutelage that goes along with that, I think that will be a big component. We feel like we can really maximize their development with a limited schedule.”
For Love, the extended offseason has been tough as a professional but rewarding as a parent. When living as a major-junior hockey coach, Love spends most months away from his family.
“There’s been pockets of time you get antsy as a hockey coach, you want to get back to work. That’s our passion; we’re no different than the players,” he said. “At other times, you’ve got to look at the positives too, and it’s allowed me to spend more time with my young daughter … It’s been an extended offseason, where I got to make up for lost time.”
The World Junior Championships will begin Dec. 25 this year, instead of the tournament’s usual Boxing Day start.