The 2008 World Under-27 Challenge will be held at the John Labatt Centre in London, ON, along with partner venues in Lucan, Strathroy, Woodstock, Stratford and St. Thomas.
Joe O’Neill is chair of the host committee. He was recently asked five questions about this tournament and international hockey and here are his responses.
What is your greatest memory when it comes to Team Canada?
That's easy – Paul Henderson's goal in 1972. Every Canadian my age knows where they were in ’72. I was in Grade 13 at Gordon Graydon Memorial Secondary School in Mississauga. We were in the cafeteria watching it on TV. When Henderson scored, it was surreal. Everyone was hugging each other. It was like we had suddenly and unexpectedly won a war. I knew that hockey in this country had changed forever but I didn't realize at the time how much it would change the game and change it for the better.
What will the Under-17 teams like most about coming to London?
London is hockey crazy! Our fans are very knowledgeable, particularly about junior-aged players and what they have to do and what they have to accomplish to reach their goals. They appreciate hockey at this level. The players will see the smiles on our faces as we see them step on the ice wearing their nation’s jersey, many of them for the first time. I know that the teams will love the John Labatt Centre. It's a beautiful arena and big league in every sense of the term. The atmosphere will be electric. The players will also love playing in our partner venue arenas. All five partner communities have long and proud local hockey traditions. Four of the arenas are almost brand new. And the great old rink in Lucan will give the European players a taste of what small town hockey in Canada is all about. The players are going to feel very welcomed and at home in our communities.
Speak briefly about minor hockey in London and some of the players that have come through the London Jr. Knights system in recent history.
I am involved in our AAA/AA Rep program. Currently, over 20 players in the OHL were born in London. That's almost an entire team. But I'm most proud of being associated with the unbelievable volunteers who run community hockey in our region. They are the best. Minor hockey here is incredibly well organized and governed and we offer every level of hockey from pre-novice to AAA, female programs and sledge hockey to special needs players. The spirit of Hockey Canada and the passion for minor hockey lives and prospers in London, ON.
What do you think about the calibre of hockey that fans are about to see in London?
I think the fans in London and our partner venues will be impressed with the calibre of play, the intensity and will sense the pride the players have representing their nations. They will see the game played the way it was meant to be played. We're really looking forward to seeing the European players and perhaps the next Alexander Ovechkin. I think the fans will quickly come to appreciate the competitiveness of this tournament. There will be few blowouts, mostly close, hard-fought, low-scoring games. There's a buzz around the communities and the fans here will be talking about the tournament for some time after it is completed.
Any predictions on who is going to end up with the gold medal around their necks?
As I think there are so many competitive teams, I can't even begin to handicap the tournament. I hope Team Ontario does well, of course. I have had a chance to meet a few of the players and watch them play in the OHL. They are outstanding athletes and fine young men. I'm certain the same can be said for all the teams. The two teams that end up in the gold medal game will have earned it. It's going to be very exciting. I can't wait!