An inside look at the Team Ontario selection process
Canada’s regional under-17 teams won't formally come together until just before the 2012 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge opens on December 29 at the WFCU Centre in Windsor, Ont., but for most of the players taking part, the process of being selected started more than a year ago.
The World Under-17 Hockey Challenge has an important place as the first step in the Program of Excellence, the starting point on the road to Canada’s National Men’s Under-18 Team and National Junior Team, and players are under the microscope long before they suit up in the Canadian Hockey League.
“I've had the chance to watch this group of kids over the course of their entire Minor Midget year,” said Barclay Branch, who is entering his first year as Ontario’s U17 director of operations. “I had the chance to become familiar with them. That builds a bit of a foundation in terms of a knowledge basis on this group of kids.”
Branch, who is also the assistant general manager and director of player personnel for the Belleville Bulls, was named director of operations in June, replacing Rob Kitamura, who was hired by the Tampa Bay Lightning.
After regional camps in April and May, which included more than 200 players, 80 were selected for the summer camp in Thunder Bay in July. Branch spent the first three months of the OHL season watching those players to determine the final roster of 22 named to Team Ontario in mid-November.
“It gives you a great opportunity to watch all of them and see them in a best-on-best type of format with and against their peers,” Branch said of the provincial camp. “It was a great opportunity to not only evaluate the players on the ice but also to really get to know them off the ice. That's one of the things that we discuss with them on the first day.”
Ontario has had unprecedented success in recent years at the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge, appearing in each of the last four goal medal games and taking home the top prize on three occasions, including last year’s 5-3 win over the United States in front of a record crowd of 12,060 at the MTS Centre in Winnipeg, Man.
So while the selection process may be a gruelling one for the players, they know it’s worth it in the end.
“It was a life-changing experience really,” said Brendan Gaunce, who helped Ontario win gold in Winnipeg, scoring a goal in the gold medal game victory. “To be able to play in front of 12,000 fans and they're all rooting for you – it was a great experience and I'll never forget it.”
Success in this under-17 tournament comes from having every player on the roster buying into the same system, which often means players are asked to play a different role than they may with their club teams. Branch said the lengthy selection process helps determine which players are ready to make that commitment.
“It's hugely important to gather as much information on each player as possible,” he said. “There are going to be players that are going to be asked to play a certain kind of role that they're not accustomed to.
“We're building a team – it's not an all-star team. We want the best team and in a short-term event like this where there's very little margin of error we need to be strong in all areas of the game.”
Gaunce believes that was a big part of the success Ontario had last year in Winnipeg.
“I think everyone bought into the systems,” Gaunce said. “Everyone wanted to bring energy and pump the team up.”
Ultimately, according to Branch, the success of his team – or any other in the tournament – will come down to who has done the best job of bringing together their players quickly.
“It's not as simple as sitting down and picking the best 20 kids,” Branch said. “It's about finding the best kids that will buy into whatever role they are playing and will mesh together best as a team. There's not a lot of time beforehand to prepare for those things going into the tournament.”
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