In every hockey player’s competitive career there is a beginning and an end. What happens in between usually determines how wide the window slides and for how long it stays open.
But in order for a young player to really crack the seal of opportunity toward his National Hockey League dream, somewhere within that framework is a defining moment.
For many in that elite – yet tight – circle of talented Canadians, that process begins as a teenager. More specifically, about the time most are legally able to acquire a driver’s license.
And that starting point for a pair of current NHL stars began with a pivotal experience at the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge, the first step into Hockey Canada’s Program of Excellence.
It was there where both admit the dream started to become reality in their pursuit of hockey beyond just a passionate recreation and toward a full-time career.
“It was a great step,” says Rick Nash, now in his eighth season with the Columbus Blue Jackets. “To make under-17 and take my game to the next level on a bigger stage was definitely something the scouts were looking for.”
Nash and his Ontario squad eventually captured the bronze medal at the 2001 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge in New Glasgow and Truro, N.S. Just 18 months later, he was selected as the first overall pick in 2002 by Columbus, after they traded up to acquire the Brampton product.
“(Under-17) brought me up against the best players in the world and Canada. To see how good they are first-hand was the best part.”
It was a similar experience for a young Patrick Marleau, who suited up for Team West back in 1995 in Amos, Que.
“It was one of the many defining moments on the way to the NHL,” says the Aneroid, Sask. native. “It shows a player that you are in an elite class at a young age.”
Marleau, too, obviously benefited from playing in the tournament, as he was selected by San Jose as the second-overall pick in 1997 and is now in his 13th season with the Sharks.
“The most memorable moment of the tournament would have to be the games and how competitive they are, and to see all the other good players around the country,” says Marleau.
Obviously, both Nash and Marleau have enjoyed stellar NHL careers to date, but beyond that they’ve also been regular members on other Team Canada rosters, including several appearances at the IIHF World Championship.
Moreover, both contributed to Canada’s gold medal win at the 2010 Olympic Winter Games last February in Vancouver. In fact, they were two of 15 under-17 alumni to play for Canada.
And while tugging on a Canadian jersey is always an honour regardless of how many times the opportunity presents itself, it was the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge that first allowed them the privilege.
“Putting on the maple leaf was definitely the best part of the whole tournament,” admits Nash, who also represented Canada at the 2002 IIHF World Junior Championship. “Even though it said ‘Ontario’ on the back, you still felt you were playing for your country. And from that day on to the Olympics, it still gives me goose bumps to put on the red and white Maple Leaf.”
While the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge uniquely provides regional competition between provinces wearing red and white Canadian jerseys, a further significant element to the tournament is the international teams that are also invited to participate.
Players not only become prepared for the international game but also learn first-hand what kind of national responsibility goes with wearing a maple leaf on your chest.
“I think when you play against other countries and you’re wearing your flag, there isn’t a prouder moment to feel for a Canadian hockey player,” says Marleau. “You know you have the support of the whole country.”
For both players, the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge provided the original framework for what have become exceptional NHL and international careers, as it will for many others granted the opportunity to climb through the same window.