It’s not all new for Hockey Canada on the road to the 2014 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge.
Sure, it’s the first time Hockey Canada has hosted a camp of this magnitude for this age group. It’s the first time 108 of the best 1998-born players have been hand-picked and flown to Calgary to be tested, evaluated and developed as players and young men.
This year’s World Under-17 Hockey Challenge, Nov. 2-8 in Sarnia-Lambton, Ont., will be the first time Canada is represented by three truly national teams at the event.
But at the first-ever national under-17 development camp, running July 28 to Aug. 4 in Calgary, experience at the U17 level will be a key factor for four players in particular.
Mitchell Balmas, Tyler Benson, Jakob Chychrun and Sean Day all participated in the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge last year as members of their regional teams.
They’ve all seen the skill and effort required to compete at the international level, against some of the world’s best. This week at camp they face a different set of challenges and opportunities as they join 104 of their peers vying for spots on Red, White and Black in Sarnia-Lambton.
“It’s a big difference, especially coming from Atlantic Canada,” says Balmas, a Sydney, N.S., native who was selected seventh overall by Charlottetown Islanders in the 2014 QMJHL Entry Draft. “This camp is more high-tempo than regional camp and the expectations are higher.”
Day, from Toronto, Ont., echoes those sentiments.
“It’s really long days. There’s a lot of testing and lectures and different activities trying to get to know each other. It’s cool though because it gives us a chance to meet players from across Canada and a chance to actually play for Team Canada.”
Day, who was drafted third overall in the 2013 OHL Priority Selection by the Mississauga Steelheads, also recognizes the importance of taking on a leadership role in a room full of less-experienced players. He said he reached out to staff at Hockey Canada prior to camp, indicating his desire to be someone they relied on as a leader among the players.
Chychrun, another Torontonian, also came to camp with the mindset of a leader. His advice to players who might be a little nervous? It’s just hockey. Play your game and do your best.
He will attempt to lead by example. Despite being the first overall pick in the 2014 OHL Priority Selection by the Sarnia Sting, Chychrun knows there are no guarantees when it comes to playing for Team Canada, even though the tournament is being held where he’ll play his junior hockey this season.
“I know I still have to earn my spot; I know I have to work hard. But I know what they’re expecting and I know the kind of game you have to play against those calibre of kids. You’ve got to work your hardest.”
The consensus among the returning players is that the new under-17 format will lend to more competitive tryouts, and in turn, more success for the Canadian program. In the past, Canada has been represented by five regional teams (Atlantic, Ontario, Pacific, Quebec and West) rather than three composed from players across the country.
“It will be interesting to see how we do being represented by three teams instead of five,” says Chychrun. “I think this format is a step in the right direction for all Hockey Canada programs and we should see better results at the World [Under-17 Hockey] Challenge and at the next level.”
Josh Dixon agrees. Dixon, an assistant coach with the WHL’s Swift Current Broncos, is a second-year assistant with the under-17 program and will travel to Sarnia-Lambton with Team Black in November.
“Regional associations have done a very good job in the years prior at the under-17 level,” he says, “but certainly with Hockey Canada’s guidance and control being able to direct the program forward it’s about more transition throughout the Program of Excellence.”
The significance of this opportunity is not lost on the players. They view this as their first chance to compete for a bona fide Team Canada.
“It’s really exciting,” says Benson, an Edmonton, Alta, product who was taken first overall by the Vancouver Giants in the 2013 WHL Bantam Draft. “I’m excited to meet new guys and see what the talent is like from across the country, and be able to play with the best.”