By Terry Koshan – Toronto Sun
Michael McNiven’s mind is clear as he attempts to earn a job with Canada at the world junior selection camp.
Circumstances beyond his control dictated a different path to the camp for the 19-year-old goaltender with the Owen Sound Attack of the Ontario Hockey League.
McNiven in late November attended the funeral of his birth mother, with whom he had been in contact during the past three years, and only on the phone or through social media.
“I flew out to Winnipeg on an off-day and met some new cousins, stayed with them,” McNiven said.
“It was a great 12 hours I had there, I got to release a lot of energy that was built up inside and I finally got to let it go. I feel a lot better now and I came back and just tried to play as strong as possible.”
McNiven, who was born in Winnipeg, was raised by his paternal grandparents Jim (who passed away in December 2013) and Christine McNiven in Georgetown, Ont., and for the past several years has been building a relationship with his father.
There is no bitterness in McNiven, who has had to mature on a sharper curve than most.
The hockey road to this camp has had its bumps for McNiven, and those have been overcome. He was passed over in the 2015 NHL draft, but was signed by the Montreal Canadiens three months later.
For Owen Sound, McNiven has put together solid numbers in 2016-17, going 15-7-1 with a .914 save percentage and a 2.41 goals-against average.
Competition this week at the Centre d’Excellence Sports Rousseau for the two goalie spots comes in the form of Carter Hart, who could have the inside track to be the starter, and Connor Ingram.
Both have been great to start the season in the Western Hockey League, Hart with the Everett Silvertips and Ingram with the Kamloops Blazers.
“All three are playing elite hockey, all played extremely well in their club situations, and even though they don’t have world junior experience, a lot of international experience, they are the hottest in Canada,” Hockey Canada director of player personnel Ryan Jankowski said.
“Hart and Ingram were at our summer camp, so there is an advantage for them. McNiven has been very good in pressure situations and he has always played well against (the) London (Knights), which is always a pressure situation.”
Those games in the OHL’s difficult Midwest Division, not only against the Knights but also the Erie Otters and the Kitchener Rangers, have been valuable experiences for McNiven. There’s playoff-like intensity when those clubs are the opponent for the Attack.
“Probably the strongest part of my game is I battle every shot and every opportunity and I never give up on the puck,” McNiven said. “I get a little spread out sometimes, but I feel like I have success with second and third chances.”
McNiven, as one would guess, has no interest in getting this close to wearing Canada’s sweater at the 2017 world junior championship in Toronto and Montreal and then being told there is no spot for him.
“I guarantee I won’t be happy about it if I don’t make the team,” McNiven said. “I’m here to secure a job, to play for my country, and play for my family as well as my organization and myself too. I want this job just as bad as anyone else if not more.”
Not surprisingly, his crease is where he can concentrate fully.
“It was an amazing feeling when (the camp roster) was announced,” McNiven said. “Everything in the last month has been tough, but I knew I had to stay focused if I wanted this opportunity, especially with my mom passing away.
“At the rink was a better place than being at home and getting my mind off it made it a lot better.”
BUSY NIGHT FOR NETMINDERS
All three goalies in Canada’s selection camp will be playing on Monday night.
When Canada meets the U Sports all-star team at the Centre d’Excellence Sports Rousseau, one of Carter Hart, Michael McNiven or Connor Ingram will be in the net for the university side and the other two will split the game for Canada.
“Three excellent goalies,” head coach Dominique Ducharme said. “We want to see them as part of the success, not only relying on them. It starts with us playing a strong game in front of them.”
In the past, returning players, or players expected to have significant roles, have been given a pass for exhibition games during camp. Not on Ducharme’s watch.
“They will be involved like everyone else,” Ducharme said. “They’re part of the group and they’re going to be in.”