A year ago, the Chicago Blackhawks made it clear that Kirby Dach was in the NHL for good.
On the surface, it was a bit puzzling. Dach was playing bottom-six minutes and failed to record a point in an 11-game stretch prior to the start of Canada's selection camp in Oakville, Ont. But at least Stan Bowman and Co. were confident in what they had in Dach, the third-overall pick in 2019, and wanted him focusing on developing against pros.
But nobody could have predicted the impact of COVID-19 and everything we've endured in 2020. Instead of a usual training camp with around 30 players over a couple day span, forty-six players are vying for 25-roster spots in a month-long camp in Red Deer. For Dach, a surprising inclusion at first due to his NHL experience, he has a shot at being Canada's most important player just months after having a dominant performance with the Blackhawks during the Stanley Cup playoffs in August. Yeah, that's still weird to type out after all this time.
Dach's participation in the actual tournament isn't a foregone conclusion – if the Blackhawks' training camp begins before the tournament is over, he could be yanked out and sent back to Chicago instead. But if Dach does play, his focus will shift to winning gold at his only World Junior Championship appearance, and his second tournament championship with Canada after winning the Hlinka-Gretzky Cup in 2018.
To do so, though, there's a bit of an adjustment period for a teenager that was previously laser-focused on earning his role with the Blackhawks.
"It's a different setting," Dach said. "To come back and be around guys my age, going through the same things I'm going through, we grew up playing with and against each other. It's fun and nice to be back.
"With the uncertain times of COVID, it gave me the opportunity to do this. When they were doing the bubble format, I got on the phone with my agent to get the ball rolling to be here."
In a normal year, Dach wouldn't be playing junior hockey once again. Even if he doesn't admit it, Dach would rather be playing NHL regular season hockey with the Blackhawks as he continues to climb up the team's depth chart. As it stands, the NHL is hoping for a Jan. 1 start date, but I'm not holding my breath. So now Dach has to focus on playing against his age group once again, but that's something Hockey Canada appreciates.
"He's a great human being," Canadian head coach Andre Tourigny said back in October after announcing Dach's inclusion in the selection camp. "He can bring leadership. He had the chance to live a season with guys like Jonathan Toews and he's been in the bubble as well. That will be really helpful for the rest of the group."
If Dach does indeed play for Canada, he won't only be Canada's best forward, but perhaps the best player in the tournament, period. Among players eligible to play in the world juniors this year, only Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko played more than 10 games, and neither are expected to play in Edmonton this winter. That experience for Dach will be so vital against the best junior-aged prospects in the game today. Canada will rely on Dach to be a leader in this team, and all it might take is just adjusting to the mindset needed to win gold.
"For me, it's about being confident in my game," Dach said. "I think all these guys have that. They are great players and it's an honor and privilege to play with these guys."