by Kristen Lipscombe
The 2012 IIHF World Junior Championship won't be the only major hockey event hitting the ice in Alberta this Boxing Day.
In fact, just as Canada's National Junior Team faces off against Finland at Rexall Place in Edmonton, the puck will also drop on the first game of the first-ever World Sport School Challenge at the newly constructed WinSport Canada Athletic and Ice Complex in Calgary. Finland's national under-17 team takes on the Pursuit of Excellence, a sport school based in Kelowna, B.C., at 1:30 p.m. MT.
In addition to Finland and the Pursuit of Excellence, the 2011 World Sport School Challenge will feature Slovakia's under-17 team, as well as boys' prep teams from Edge School for Athletes in Calgary, Okanagan Hockey Academy in Penticton, B.C., and Shattuck-St. Mary's School in Faribault, Minn. The six squads will play in a round robin Dec. 26-28, with quarter-finals Dec. 29, semifinals Dec. 30 and both the bronze and gold medal games set for Dec. 31.
So why schedule a brand new championship at the exact same point in the season as one of the most high profile hockey tournaments in the world?
"Just having the World Juniors around, I think that's going to be really special for this tournament," said Kevin Bathurst, manager of schools programs for Hockey Canada. "It will be a good opportunity for everybody."
Bathurst said fan excitement from the World Juniors, and perhaps even some players participating in the under-20 championship, should trickle from the Saddledome into the stands at WinSport Canada, Hockey Canada's new home as of late October.
"It's great for … our sport school programs and our athletes to be able to (not only) utilize such a great facility, (but to also) be one of the first to access such a state-of-the-art arena," he said. The 2011 World Sport School Challenge will be just the second Hockey Canada event hosted out of WinSport Canada, following the 2011 World Sledge Hockey Challenge taking place Nov. 27-Dec. 3.
Bathurst said the push to put on the World Sport School Challenge went full throttle when Hockey Canada started prioritizing the importance of recruitment and retention in the great Canadian sport.
"It's an opportunity for us to reach some membership we haven't been able to reach in the past," he said, adding Hockey Canada partners with about 10 sport schools across the country, as well as many others south of the border and overseas through global federations. In addition to promoting current sport school partnerships, the World Sport School Challenge will also "provide some excitement for schools looking at this opportunity."
Bathurst said there are hundreds of schools that include hockey across the country that could potentially work with Hockey Canada to help their teams succeed, and their students further grow as players, and as people.
"There are a lot of athletes playing this game that don't currently fall under our umbrella (and) a lot of private schools and prep schools with really strong hockey programs that don't play in our leagues and don't fall under our membership as the national governing body of hockey in this country," he said. "It's important for us to include all those that are playing the game."
Whether it's for exceptional coaching, more convenient ice time or a higher calibre of play, sport schools are becoming increasingly popular choices among young players who want to hone their skills on the ice, and their parents, Bathurst said. That's why it's pivotal for Hockey Canada to make its programs and services available to this flourishing avenue for players.
"Everybody wants options in the game now, in terms of where they want to play and where they think their best opportunities to develop as a person and as an athlete are," he said. "The sport school model provides them with that … and a freedom of choice."
Both fans and players alike should be pumped about seeing boys' prep teams play against under-17 national squads at the inaugural event, Bathurst said. "It will be a good measuring stick for them personally, and as a sport school, to judge their competition level and how they've been developing their players … and it will be some fun competition to watch."
Full tournament ticket packages for the 2011 World Sport School Challenge are now available online at www.HockeyCanada.ca/Tickets for just $40. Single game ticket prices will be announced at a later date.
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