There are players like Joe Sakic, Mario Lemieux and Sidney Crosby, who have won National Hockey League scoring championships, Hart Trophies and Stanley Cups.
And there are players like Dale Derkatch, Gus Morschauser and Brent Tully, whose careers reached only as high as the Finnish Elite League, International Hockey League and American Hockey League, respectively.
But despite the differing career paths, all six players can lay claim to something that only a few hundred Canadian hockey players can over the past 26 years: they were a part of Hockey Canada’s Program of Excellence.
Since its inception in 1982, the Program of Excellence has been a breeding ground for Canadian hockey talent, and it has led to big things on the international stage for Canada.
To recap: 10 gold medals in 15 years for Canadian regional teams at the World Under-17 Challenge, 12 gold medals in 17 years for the National Men’s Summer Under-18 Team, one gold medal at the IIHF World Under-18 Championship, 13 gold medals at the IIHF World Junior Championship, five gold medals at the IIHF World Championship and one Olympic gold medal.
Add it all up, and you have unprecedented and unrivaled success at all levels on the world stage.
“We feel that we have a world-class system for developing players, and I think the results back that up,” says Johnny Misley, Hockey Canada’s vice-president of hockey. “We’ve built it to the point that all young players want to be a part of the program.”
The first brick in the Program of Excellence was laid in 1981, shortly after Canada – represented by the Cornwall Royals, the 1980 Memorial Cup champions – finished a disappointing seventh at the 1981 IIHF World Junior Championship in West Germany.
The Canadian Amateur Hockey Association decided there was a better way to prepare for the world’s most prestigious Junior hockey event, and the Program of Excellence was born in time for the 1982 IIHF World Junior Championship in the United States.
The result? Canada’s first-ever win over the Soviet Union at the World Juniors – a 7-0 drubbing, no less – first undefeated record ever (6-0-1) and the country’s first-ever gold medal.
The Program of Excellence had proven to be a success, and it has only grown in the 26 years since.
The provincial Under-17 programs were added to the Program of Excellence in the late 1980s, while the early 1990s saw the birth of the National Men’s Under-18 Team, which has had unparalleled success internationally, finishing worse than silver only twice in annual summer tournaments since 1991.
“After the success of the Junior program, expansion to other age levels was only natural,” Misley says. “If we can get a player in our program early, and teach them Canadian hockey, and how to be successful both on and off the ice, then we stand a better chance of being successful both at that level, and at levels throughout the Program of Excellence.”
Looking for more proof of the success of the Program of Excellence? Look no further than December’s National Junior Team selection camp in Calgary.
Thirty-seven players got the invite to camp to battle for one of 22 spots on Canada’s National Junior Team for the 2008 IIHF World Junior Championship in the Czech Republic. Of those 37, 24 had previous experience with their respective regional Under-17 programs, and 21 had suited up for Canada’s National Under-18 Team.
In total, 33 of the 37 players invited to camp – 89 per cent – had previous Program of Excellence experience, a testament to Hockey Canada commitment to developing young hockey players.
As time has gone on, more countries have taken note of that that commitment, and more countries have implemented programs of their own that mirror the Program of Excellence that has brought such success to Canadian hockey.
USA Hockey introduced the National Team Development Program in the late 1990s, and international powers such as Sweden, Finland and Switzerland have followed suit and created similar programs of their own.
“To us, it is a sign of respect that so many other countries see what we are doing and want to put similar programs in place,” Misley says. “But we were the original, we’re still the strongest and we’re only to get stronger in the future.”