A portion of what's going to be the future of hockey was on display yesterday in London.
It was impressive.
Ontario, one of the 10 teams that will participate in the 2008 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge beginning here after Christmas, practiced at the Western Fair Sports Centre.
It was a collection of the best young players in the province, many of whom are playing major roles with their respective Ontario Hockey League teams.
And that's one of the big differences between this tournament and some of the previous Under-17s. While many National Hockey League players have participated in this event, when they appeared, they didn't have the benefit of having played a great deal at the Major Junior level. They would get a couple of shifts a period.
That's changed in a big way. Many of the 16-year-olds on the ice yesterday have seen a lot of ice time with their teams. They've become key players in whatever success their teams have.
Ryan O'Reilly is one of the best players on the Erie Otters. Ryan Ellis quarterbacks the Windsor Spitfires’ power play. Taylor Hall, who couldn't make practice yesterday, has 19 goals and 15 assists for the Spitfires. Joey Hishon is a 10-goal scorer for the Owen Sound Attack.
Michael Latta of the Ottawa 67's and David Corrente with the Oshawa Generals are getting lots of ice time.
It's a roster full of stars.
Call it a mini-model of the National Junior Team. A number of years ago, Hockey Canada changed their
system. They now make selections based on skill and adaptability.
They don't select a player because he can kill penalties or is a strong checker. They pick players they know will be willing to buy into the system and do whatever is asked.
"It's the coach's job to slot them into a role that will make them successful as a team," said Rob Kitamura, general manager of the Ontario team. "You don't go out and pick a guy who's a fourth-line shutdown winger. You pick the best 22 players.
"One thing we did is we placed a premium on speed and how well they skate. From there, it's up to the coaches to put the lines together. I'm a big believer you do everything with speed. You're tough to defend. It's easier to defend if you take away time and space. That's just the way the game goes these days."
Skill, skill and more skill. That's the deal with this team. It's going to be the deal with the other teams as well. Be it Atlantic, Quebec, West or Pacific, they'll all have the top young players.
"We're highly skilled but you look at the other teams who will have players playing in their junior leagues, (and) there's a lot of skill in this tournament," Kitamura said. "Look at where these guys are, (compared to) the start of the season. We have a lot of guys who are putting up points in the Ontario Hockey League, which is hard to do."
For those who don't know much about the Under-17 level, all they really need to know is much of the talent that's here will likely go on to bigger and better things, although that bigger and better is a minimum two years away.
"It's a chance to see the competition we have for the NHL draft and the competition there is around the world for the draft," Ellis said. "In a couple of years, there's going to be a bunch of these guys playing somewhere important."
Joining an already impressive list of players who have already been here and done that.
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