Tryouts are as routine in hockey as yearly registration and skating drills at practice. At the end of every summer or beginning of fall, players are evaluated amongst their peers and then assigned to various levels in their age group based on skill-set.
It’s a standard opening to every new hockey season, but imagine when the evaluation process includes hundreds of players from every Junior A franchise – all 128 – across the country and only 44 spots are available for two national teams?
It’s a cumbersome number, for sure, and the selection process a daunting task devoid of an exact science. But it’s a necessary exercise in order to ensure the best are selected and Canada well represented both in the East and West.
“It’s a process that can pre-occupy most of your spare time,” says Dean Brockman, head coach of Canada West, which will defend its World Junior A Challenge gold medal in Yarmouth, N.S., Nov. 5-11.
Selecting two Canadian teams by splitting the country in half geographically with its rich pool of Junior A hockey players isn’t like scoring an empty-netter. There is no criss-crossing the nation like judges on American Idol to narrow the field through individual auditions.
Instead, both Canadian teams use a network of contacts throughout Hockey Canada like NHL Central Scouting, other Junior A coaches and their personal knowledge of players in their own leagues or region to massage the initial numbers to a more manageable figure.
“We’re covered very well,” admits Greg Walters, Canada East’s head coach for the World Junior A Challenge and also the general manager and bench boss for the Georgetown Raiders of the Ontario Junior Hockey League. “As coaches we can’t get out to see everyone play, but we have a strong support system.”
For Walters and Brockman, who were both assistants on their respective Canadian teams a last year’s tournament in Langley, B.C., the process is the same.
Both have assembled solid coaching staffs with Brockman’s group including Ryan Smith (Selkirk, MJHL), Jason McKee (Spruce Grove, AJHL) and Jeff Battah (Nanaimo, BCHL) along with manager Shawn Bullock (Hockey Canada) handling the administrative duties like travel and meals. Canada East consists of Sheldon Keefe (Pembroke, CCHL), Laurie Barron (Yarmouth, MHL), Mike Doyle (Aurora, OJHL) and manager Bayne Pettinger (Hockey Canada) joining Walters.
After the coaching staffs for Canada’s two World Junior A Challenge entries were named in May, the process began in identifying players and making evaluations in earnest by mid-August. Each staff started with conference calls and emails to each other to begin paring down the numbers, using players’ performances in their own league to directly compare against others in the region.
From there, the coaches assembled in one city in a war room session in early October to further reduce the list to a select group of 60 players that competed in Calgary (Canada West) and Toronto (Canada East) in a final selection camp from Oct. 28 to Nov. 1.
This short-list of 60 allowed the coaches an opportunity to see the nation’s best 17-, 18- and 19-year-old players first-hand in order to make the final roster selections, with each team keeping 22 players.
“It looks like you’re staring in the mirror day after day and looking at who you’re going to take or what you’re going to take,” says Brockman, who is also the head coach and GM of the SJHL’s Humboldt Broncos.
And once a player is invited to selection camp, it was up to the individual to impress the coaching staff to make the final cut. For the coaches on each Canadian team, the talent pool is so rich it’s like fishing in a stocked pond and only keeping some and throwing back others that might be just as good.
However, the key to this particular selection process is to ensure that those 22 players that make-up the two Canadian teams are balanced to include checkers, scorers, shot-blockers and finesse players – all the necessary components of a championship team.
And since the World Junior A Challenge is a short tournament, the Canadian rosters will need to include a team-first mentality, leaving little room for selfish individuals and providing an environment for only those willing to accept a certain role, even if that might be different to what they’re used to on their own Jr. A team back home.
“We have to make sure that character is a huge component in making this hockey team,” says Walters. “It’s a tough task, but we’re hoping throughout the week that they realize what they have to sacrifice to be an elite player to play on this team.”
In many respects, the two regions of the country will select Junior A all-star teams. And getting down to 22 players on each team wasn’t easy with little margin for error.
But when all the heavy lifting was done, Walters trusts that his coaching staff’s due diligence put the best 22 players on the ice to compete for a gold medal.
“You got to get it right the first time” he says. “And you hope that in those 60 players, that 22 are going to play the Canadian way.”