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Rangers defenceman has chance at gold medal at the World Juniors

Rangers GM Mike McKenzie hoping Hamara's World Junior experience helps build confidence for Rangers' second half of the season

Kitchener Rangers defenceman Tomas Hamara is looking to try and shut down Canada's potent offense for the second time at the 2023 World Junior Hockey Championships Thursday. 

Czechia played Canada in the Boxing Day opener where they won 5-2 against Canada, shocking the host country in that first game. 

That lit a bit of a fire under the Canadians. They haven't lost a game in the tournament since that opening night loss. Since then, Canada has outscored their opponents 34-11 and have outscored them in the entire tournament as well, 39-13. 

Shutting down that potent offense including players like Regina Pats' forward Connor Bedard is something that Hamara wouldn't be exposed to unless he played in this tournament. 

That's experience that is extremely valuable if you ask Rangers General Manager Mike McKenzie. 

"It's huge, it's such a high level of hockey and there's so much at stake that it's really a good experience for anyone that gets to play there and they can bring that back with them," said McKenzie, "playing in front of a packed house in a pressure situation with a lot on the line against the best players in the world for their age, there's no other way to get that experience than actually be there and do it. It's a really good experience for him." 

McKenzie said the tournament is such a drain on the players knowing they have to play so many games in a short period of time.

"I think he'll come back a little fatigued and a little tired because it's a tough tournament (...) mentally it's a lot for young teenage kids to go through all those games and situations filled with pressure. I think it'll be really good for him for the second half [back in Kitchener], we've seen it in our league countless times that import players come over and we sometimes forget how much of an adjustment it is for them being in a new country, speaking a new language, being away from home, smaller ice surface, everything is new to them, new culture," he said, "and we sometimes forget that they are young teenage kids and there is a process to get adapted to your new surroundings." 

McKenzie said a bit of a trend he has noticed with import players in the OHL is getting the best out of them in the second half of the season.

"Typically we see the best from import players in the second half of the season," said McKenzie, "I think when you couple that with this experience, I think Tomas is going to come back and be a really big part of our team in the second half here." 

McKenzie said the whole Rangers organization is really happy for Hamara to be in a situation to play for gold against Canada in Halifax. 

"It's awesome for him," said McKenzie, "we're really excited for him. He's a great kid, really popular guy around here. It's not just a great opportunity for him to play in the tournament but to be in a situation where you're in the gold medal game against Canada on Canadian soil. It doesn't get much more exciting than that. It's been a great tournament for his team, they've been a really fun team to watch and I don't think a lot of people were pegging them to be in the gold medal game but they got a lot of really good players and he's playing a key role on the team so it's really exciting."

McKenzie said he's been keeping a close eye on what Hamara has been able to do at the tournament compared to what he's been doing in Kitchener. 

"When I watch him play the games he's played so far, I think I see a similar style of play with his Czech team then what he's doing with us. He's moving the puck well, exiting the zone really well, breaking the puck out which is a huge strength for him. He's playing solid defensively too. He's not being relied upon to play 25-30 minutes a night. They got some other really good defenceman on their team," said McKenzie. 

That's something that McKenzie is expecting from Hamara when he gets back to Kitchener. 

"He's playing some really solid hockey and that's what we're expecting from him when he gets back. I think the biggest thing he can bring back from the tournament is defending on the smaller ice and he's playing against guys that are extremely talented. Bedard and these guys are all top round NHL picks. There's no weak players out there on the ice. Any time you go over the boards, you're matching up against a top NHL pick."

McKenzie said that experience will be good for him to bring back to Kitchener and he hopes that both of his players who are at the tournament will come back confident. 

Rangers forward Filip Mesar represented his home country of Slovakia at the tournament as well. 

"Coming back in a confident mindset is the biggest thing. I think both of our guys will because they've both have had really good tournaments. With what Slovakia did almost knocking off Canada and with Czech going to the final as a big of an underdog, (...) I think both guys will come back confident and that's huge for the Rangers. That's what you want."

McKenzie recognizes that other times players can go over to such a big tournament and not find success.

"Other times you can go and it could go the opposite way, where a guy goes and maybe it doesn't go so well, his team doesn't do well or he doesn't play much and he struggles early in the tournament and isn't playing as much and he comes back a little beat up mentally and not feeling as good as he can. I think for our two guys, that won't be the case. They've both had really good tournaments and their teams both showed really well and I think both guys should be coming back confident." 

The Czechia coaching staff includes two fairly big names that both played in the NHL with Marek Zidlicky and Ondrej Pavelec serving as assistant coaches.

"I think it's really good for him. When you're [in Kitchener], you're being coached by guys who have been around too. Our head coach has been in pro and understands the pro game and can really help our guys get ready for that. He's coached defenseman at the AHL level. Our defenseman coach Dennis Wideman has played a number of years in the NHL and has that experience to give our defenseman too."

McKenzie knows it's really helpful to have Czech coachs who have had similar experiences is really good for the player too.

"I think there's something to be said when its a person from your own country. There's that bond between someone from your own country that has done it before and is coaching you. It can also be extremely helpful and maybe even add another element of trust there (...) it's really good for Tomas and all of those kids to have guys like that who are from their country, that have been through it before, they know how it feels to make those adjustments," said McKenzie. 

With McKenzie being from Canada but having players from his own team playing in the tournament, who is he cheering for?

"I probably shouldn't answer this question," laughed McKenzie, "it's not fair to pick sides but I honestly could care less who wins the game probably at the end of the day. I'm Canadian obviously but I'd really like to see Tomas do well and I think it would be a great story if he could come home with a gold medal to Kitchener. I'm Canadian at heart and I never mind seeing Canada do well but my number one responsibility is the Kitchener Rangers and any time we have a player playing there, that's who I'm rooting for. So, I'll be rooting for Tomas." 

You can catch the game on CityNews 570 starting at 6 p.m. Puck drop is set for 6:30 p.m. 

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