When 19-year-old forward Nail Yakupov was selected first overall by the Edmonton Oilers at the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, it represented a milestone for the World Junior A Challenge.
Never before had alumnus of the tournament been first on stage to greet Gary Bettman and don an NHL jersey; it was a big step for the little tournament that could.
For six years the World Junior A Challenge has been showcasing potential NHLers from Canada’s 10 Junior A leagues and around the world in a tournament that has featured the likes of Yakupov, Kyle Turris, Joe Colborne, Jaden Schwartz and Evgeny Kuznetsov.
In total, 152 players have gained experience and exposure at the World Junior A Challenge and gone on to be drafted by an NHL club; it turns out the best tournament you may never have heard of may not turn all heads, but it turns the right ones.
The 2011 World Junior A Challenge played out in Langley, B.C., last November, and while the Vancouver Canucks would have had scouts attend the tournament regardless, they sent a few more with it being in their own backyard.
A handful of Vancouver’s top amateur scouts attended to watch and study all participating and while the tournament doesn’t have the impact or competitive nature of the IIHF World Junior Championship, it helps separate players for the later rounds of the NHL draft.
It was no surprise then, that on , the Canucks used fifth- and sixth-round picks at the 2012 NHL Entry Draft to select players that never appeared on the World Junior stage, but had an impact at the 2011 World Junior A Challenge.
Ben Hutton, who helped Canada East to the silver medal in Langley, was drafted in the fifth round, 147th overall; he acknowledges that without his World Junior A Challenge experience, he wouldn’t be part of the Canucks organization today.
“Going in there, I wouldn’t say people knew who I was,” said Hutton, currently attending the University of Maine. “But after that I opened up a lot of eyes and maybe got noticed by more than just a couple of teams. After the final game there was a line-up of people to talk to me, a couple of NHL scouts and guys from schools, which made me feel really nice.”
For Wesley Myron, the NHL draft was barely on his radar, despite encouraging words from his coaches.
After helping Canada West capture gold over Hutton and Canada East, Myron was on almost every scout’s radar as a player with outstanding versatility. He has the World Junior A Challenge to thank for putting that on display.
“I think it does expose different assets of your game,” said Myron, currently suiting up for the Terriers at Boston University. “With the Victoria Grizzlies I was a first line player who was relied on to score and win games, but on that team everyone found a role and mine was different. I was on the right wing and I’m a centre, and I was on a shutdown checking line, so it was good for them to see that I have more to my game than just putting up points, playing on the power play and being an offensive guy for the Grizzlies. This showed that I could play at both ends of the ice.”
That, according to Dan Marr, director of NHL Central Scouting and former chief scout for the Atlanta Thrashers, is precisely why the World Junior A Challenge has become a must-see event for NHL scouts.
Marr said he’d be surprised if every NHL team isn’t represented at the tournament; during his days with Atlanta two scouts would be there at the beginning, two at the end and sometimes a fifth would work in as well.
Clearly there’s a lot of scouting to be had.
“It’s an event that exposes the caliber of player that plays in the junior leagues all throughout Canada,” said Marr. “All it takes is for one team to have interest in a player and 29 teams may not have the player on their list, but as long as there’s one team or one scout that’s really stepping up and making a case for a player, then a player can get drafted and get that opportunity.
“This tournament brings these players all together, the majority of them anyways, in one place, so they’re playing against their peers and they get to showcase themselves. It accomplishes a lot for the NHL scouts that are there, the players and for the leagues.”