Team Canada’s captains at the IIHF World Junior Championship consist of a third overall pick, a fifth overall pick and Donovan Sebrango.
Sebrango was drafted by the Red Wings in the third round (63rd overall) in 2020 — not bad in his own right — but by no means did he come to the World Juniors carrying as much star power as one would expect for a top-pair defenseman on the Canadian blue line, or even as much as fellow captains Mason McTavish and Kent Johnson.
And yet, as the elimination rounds are set to begin, here Sebrango is. He’s guiding the tournament favorites with his leadership, blocking every shot he can get a limb on, coming off another game in which he’s led Canada in time on ice, and garnering national praise for the way he’s contributed to the Canadians advancing through the preliminary round with a 4-0 mark and goal differential of plus-20.
“I think when you wear a letter, especially for your country, especially the group that I’m with, with McTavish and Johnson…to be able to wear a letter with them is an honor,” Sebrango said. “I mean, they’re all amazing hockey players here. They know what to do, so I mean, it’s not really so much — (I’m) just trying to be a leader on the ice.”
Sebrango is not the first third-round pick to be a difference-maker at the World Juniors — fellow Red Wings prospect Carter Mazur is doing it right now for Team USA. He’s certainly not the only player to be drafted in 2020 that had his career trajectory upended by the COVID-19 pandemic.
But the way he’s handled the combination of those circumstances has begun to define his post-draft career for the better. Heading into the playoff rounds of the World Juniors (Wednesday through Saturday), you can expect to keep seeing and hearing the name of Canada’s breakout defenseman.
Sebrango was drafted out of the OHL, where he spent two seasons with the Kitchener Rangers before being drafted by Detroit. While it’s likely that Sebrango would have returned to the OHL in a normal year, uncertainty surrounding the Canadian Hockey League landed him in Grand Rapids to play with the Griffins.
Now, at just age 20, he has a full two seasons of AHL experience under his belt. While he can’t say for certain how that changed the trajectory of his career and how he developed in the early stages, Sebrango can positively say that it’s been a net benefit.
“I guess it was a blessing in disguise. You get kind of a crappy situation going on with COVID, but I get to play in the American (Hockey) League, and I think I’ve learned so much just playing against men and trying to take a step forward to my dream in the NHL,” Sebrango said.
Sebrango wasn’t just playing against men, however. He was also playing with them — like Griffins captain Brian Lashoff, who broke in with the Griffins in 2008 and has taken Sebrango under his wing over the last two seasons. That, in a way, makes it no real surprise that Sebrango’s leadership and maturity has made him a shining star through the first week of games.
“He’s playing at that high of a level that long. I mean, I’m just turning 20, so he’s been playing at that high of a level for as long as I’ve been around,” Sebrango said. “I think how he prepares and how he gets his body right to play a full season like that…it’s quite something to watch and it’s an honor to be on his team.”
As Canada prepares to play a few rounds of win-or-go-home hockey, Sebrango admitted that his team lacks a certain battle-tested quality thus far. Its closest game of the tournament was a 6-3 win over Finland on Monday. All of that, though, just makes it all the more necessary that guys like Sebrango are around to put each situation in perspective and keep the team at the top of its game.
“It’s something we’ve definitely, as the leadership group, has addressed with the room, that no matter who we’re playing that day, we’ve got to bring our best foot forward” Sebrango said.
“I think going into the elimination round, we’re ready because we’ve prepared every game like it’s do or die, and it doesn’t matter who we’re playing. We’re at the top of our game.”