Now four years into its existence, the World Junior A Challenge has steadily developed into a marquee event, a hot spot for junior hockey fans and scouts to check out some of the top players in their age groups as they prepare to make the next step.
"One of the original concepts was to use this as a development tool," explains Canadian Junior Hockey League chair Paul Lake, who has seen all three editions of the annual tournament first hand. “I think we’ve been successful from that end, as evidenced by some of the notable players who have taken the ice.”
More than 50 WJAC alumni have heard their names called at the NHL Entry Draft, including eight first rounders: Kyle Turris, Phoenix (third overall, 2007); Riley Nash, Edmonton (21st overall, 2007); Brendan Smith, Detroit (27th overall, 2007); Joe Colborne, Boston (16th overall, 2008); Nikita Filatov, Columbus (sixth overall, 2008); Dmitri Kulikov, Florida (14th overall, 2009); John Moore, Columbus (21st overall, 2009), and Dylan Olsen, Chicago (28th overall, 2009).
Lake gives much of the credit to Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League president Laury Ryan, who proposed the idea of an international Junior A event to Canadian Junior Hockey League and Hockey Canada representatives in 2005.
“We were originally looking at getting an international event in Saskatchewan run by the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League, to showcase Junior A hockey in our province,” Ryan said in 2006, just prior to the inaugural tournament. “The more we looked at it, the more we realized we couldn’t do it alone. The end product that you see, the World Junior A Challenge, is a product of many, many, many folks.”
After close to two years of planning, the first World Junior A Challenge hit the ice in Yorkton and Humboldt, Saskatchewan in November 2006.
"I'd describe Year 1 as a challenge," says Lake, explaining the tournament's growth. "With any inaugural event, there are a lot of things to work through. But I give a lot of credit to Laury, his league and the folks in Yorkton; we did as well as we could expect. It was very much an unknown event.”
Historic Cominco Arena in Trail, B.C. was the main venue in 2007 as the home of the Smoke Eaters co-hosted the tournament with nearby Nelson.
"Using Yorkton as a springboard, the event in Trail and Nelson was absolutely incredible event,” Lake says. “The two communities really came together and put on quite a show."
One year later the tournament moved west to Camrose, Alta., the first time one venue hosted the entire event.
"Maybe we could have done a little better in terms of getting people into seats, but it was a terrific event" says Lake. "A lot of tickets were sold, and the host committee did an amazing job. I wouldn't use the word disappointment, but I think a lot of people missed out on watching some really, really good hockey.”
Now the tournament comes to Canada’s East Coast for the first time, as Summerside, P.E.I. plays host. The 2008 event will also mark the debut of Sweden, which joins what is arguably the strongest field in the four-year history of the World Junior A Challenge.
"It's a great building, great community and I'm really hoping that people down there are going to embrace the event," says Lake. "I know they're going to see great hockey, there's absolutely no question about that.”
As important as the tournament has been to Hockey Canada and the Canadian Junior Hockey League, it is even more important for the players who have donned the maple leaf and represented Canada on the international stage, something that was never before possible for Junior A players.
"This tournament kind of jump-started my NHL hopes and got me up on the bigger stage," says Joe Colborne, who won a gold medal with Canada West in 2007. "After that, you could notice a lot more attention was thrown in my direction."
Colborne said watching a couple of his teammates return to his team in Camrose with the gold medal in 2006 inspired him.
"It was a really big reason for me to try and stay another year and try to make the team the second year," he says. "It was a decision I'll never regret and it is one of the highlights of my career so far."
Colborne’s thoughts are echoed by Turris, who made a splash by scoring four goals in the tournament’s first-ever game, helping Canada West to the inaugural gold medal in 2006.
"It definitely had an impact (on my career)," he says. "I was lucky enough to play in the World Junior A Challenge, World Juniors and the RBC Cup, and playing in Yorkton was a great experience and one of my biggest thrills."