When Salmon Arm Silverbacks teammates Travis Zajac and Kris Chucko stepped onto the stage at the RBC Center in Raleigh, North Carolina as first-round draft picks in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft, it was a historic moment for Junior A hockey in Canada.
Never before had two players from Junior A hockey been selected in the opening round of the same draft, and hockey insiders believed it to be the end of a long road to respectability for the Junior A level.
But it was the beginning of a new road, one to a higher place in the nation’s game.
Just 10 years ago, the thought of Junior A players as first-round picks seemed an unlikely one – the Canadian Junior A Hockey League (CJAHL) was where players went to earn college scholarships, not show off their talents for NHL scouts.
But not anymore.
“Junior A hockey just keeps getting better,” says E.J. McGuire, director of NHL Central Scouting. “The stereotype is that the CJAHL caters to the student-athlete, but in reality the talent level is tremendous, and it is becoming a terrific place for players to showcase their skills to not just college and university scouts, but to NHL scouts as well.”
So just how far has Junior A hockey come?
In 1998, just four Junior A players were selected by NHL teams – Mike Siklenka, Paul Cabana, Craig Murray and Matthew Yeats. That’s four selections out of 258 players.
And, while not discounting their skills, those four players have combined for just seven NHL games in close to 10 years – two by Siklenka and five by Yeats.
By comparison, the 2007 NHL Entry Draft saw 15 Junior A players drafted out of 211, including a record three in the first round – Kyle Turris (the highest-ever selected Junior A player, 3rd overall by Phoenix), Riley Nash and Brendan Smith.
So, in nine years, Junior A hockey went from having one of every 65 NHL draft selections be an alumni to one in every 15, quite a significant jump.
“We’re growing every year, and it’s an exciting thing to be a part of,” says Laury Ryan, president of the CJAHL and also of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League, one of its 10 member leagues. “We want young players to want to come to our leagues and play, and we think we’re doing great things to make sure that happens.”
In 2006, looking for new ways to showcase the talent in Canadian Junior A hockey, the CJAHL and Hockey Canada introduced the World Junior A Challenge, which brought together the best from the CJAHL’s 10 leagues into two teams – Canada West and Canada East – along with national teams from Russia, Germany, Slovakia and Belarus.
The World Junior A Challenge joined the CJAHL Top Prospects Game, which debuted in 2005, as premier showcase events for the CJAHL and the Junior A game.
“It’s our job to ensure the NHL teams that very little slip between the cracks, which is tough with 140 teams in 10 leagues across Canada,” McGuire says. “These events bring together the top players across the nation, and across the world in the case of the World Junior A Challenge, and puts them in a showcase format for the scouts to go to in one locale. It’s beneficial to both the CJAHL players and the scouts who are trying to identify talent.”
Of the CJAHL’s 15 NHL-drafted players in 2007, seven took part in the 2006 World Junior A Challenge, and nine dressed for the 2006 CJAHL Top Prospects Game, including four of the five players selected in the first three rounds.
But it is not those players who benefit from the exposure, according to McGuire.
“Players like Kyle Turris and Joe Colborne (a Camrose Kodiaks forward expected to go in the first two rounds of this year’s NHL draft) aren’t going to fall through the cracks,” he says. “The top echelon will be identified anyways, but I think the next level of players who may not get drafted until the fifth round or sixth round, or even next year, are the ones who really benefit.”
McGuire points to players like Louie Caporusso (90th overall by Ottawa) and Benn Winnett (104th overall by Toronto) as examples of those whose play in the showcase events helped elevate their draft status.
As the World Junior A Challenge and the CJAHL Top Prospects Game grow in status, it seems natural that the draft status of Canadian Junior A players will continue to rise.
In midseason rankings released by NHL Central Scouting for the 2008 NHL Entry Draft, nine Junior A players were ranked in the top 200 of North American skaters, including seven in the top 80, led by Colborne at #30 – all seven were on the ice in Winkler, MB in December for the 2007 CJAHL Top Prospects Game, and four played at the 2007 World Junior A Challenge.
“The (Junior A) game is growing constantly, and we’re working hard to keep that growth going,” Ryan says. “We have some terrific events, and we want to continue to improve on them and continue to raise the profile of the game.”
Every season, more than 2,800 players suit up for Junior A teams from Port Alberni, BC to Woodstock, NB – could there one day be a first overall pick from a CJAHL team?
As the CJAHL has proven in the past few years, the possibilities are endless.