The last few weeks of September were some of the busiest of Ryan Jankowski’s hockey life.
“Without a doubt,” he laughs.
Jankowski, Hockey Canada’s director of player personnel, has been at the centre of the creation of Hockey Canada’s new national under-17 program that, on Oct. 2, announced the 66 players that will represent the country on three national teams – Black, Red and White – at the 2014 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge in Sarnia-Lambton, Ont.
“As busy as it [has been], it was so fulfilling because of the process we used,” Jankowski says.
That process began months before the final rosters were announced.
Over the summer, 108 of the country’s top players born in 1998 were invited to attend Hockey Canada’s first-ever national under-17 development camp in Calgary, Alta. They earned their invitations thanks in large part to the recommendations of regional scouts from across Canada like Donald Audette (Quebec), Brad McEwen (West), Kevin Mitchell (Atlantic) and Kyle Raftis (Ontario).
“Those are the guys that brought the information to the table, knew their players, could support their players and then, coming to the camp in Calgary and seeing [all of the players], they could see where their players stood with them,” Jankowski says.
The players were closely evaluated throughout the week-long camp by Jankowski and Joël Bouchard, a member of Hockey Canada’s Program of Excellence management group, as well as their scouting team. That evaluation continued throughout the Canadian Hockey League exhibition and regular season as the scouts tracked the performance of the players they had their collective eye on.
“The exhibition season was really good because the young players play a lot, so any of the bubble guys that we had questions about, we could see in that [Major Junior] environment.”
At past under-17 tournaments, Canada was represented by five regional teams – Atlantic, Ontario, Pacific, Quebec and West. The new three-team format presents some unique challenges and considerations to the selection process.
“You’re just trying to make sure that the three teams are as even as possible and that all different types of players are well distributed amongst the three teams,” Jankowski says.
Player size, handedness and skill level are some of the variables that he says factor into the selection of each roster and the dispersal of players. Spreading out the top-end talent and the dependable role players equally amongst the rosters was paramount.
“You want to make sure that each team has the same amount of [each type of player] so that all of the coaches have the same amount of flexibility when it comes to playing with their rosters,” Jankowski says.
“We’re really excited about the players that we have and how potentially good our three teams are.”
It will be up to Sheldon Keefe to help Canada White realize that potential. Along with Kelly Nobes and Dan Lambert, he will serve as head coach of one the program’s inaugural national teams.
“I think they’ve done a really nice job of spreading the talent around the three groups and really identifying the types and categorizing the types of different players, and putting together teams that work well on paper,” Keefe says. “Obviously it’s up to the coaches and the players now to come together and work together on the ice.”
Keefe did have some input along the way. At the summer camp, each head coach worked with two teams. After the camp wrapped up, Jankowski and his staff asked the coaches to identify eight players from their rosters who they would want on their national team.
“That gives them some familiarity with the players,” Jankowski says. “Once we got those eight players up on the board for each team, then you could see where we had to fill for each team and what we had to give each team.”
Keefe is happy with the squad he’s been given.
“I think with [Canada White], we have a real nice blend of talent and hardworking, gritty-type players with strong character,” Keefe says.
Keefe’s top priority now is ensuring that the team that has been built for him comes together quickly in Sarnia-Lambton when the world’s best young players gather for the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge.
“That’s really priority one at this stage,” says Keefe. “We feel like we are a few steps ahead because of the development camp that has taken place. That’s not only because there is a good chunk of players on our team that we were able to work with and interact with but even the players we didn’t have a chance to work with, they all went through the same camp.”
Keefe has been helping his team prepare for next month’s tournament in other ways. Since the rosters were announced, Keefe and his coaching staff have been reaching out to their players, sharing videos and tips, and encouraging them to connect with each other through social media.
“We’re trying to get as much work done [as we can] in advance because once we arrive in Sarnia, things are going to be happening quite quickly,” Keefe says.
The tournament runs from Nov. 2-8 and will be centred out of the RBC Centre, home of the OHL’s Sarnia Sting. Once there, Keefe is hoping his players embrace their roles and play “The Canadian Way,” the mantra of the summer camp.
“That’s really been the message from the start of the development camp so that’s the expectation in terms of what we want to see from the guys,” Keefe says. “In terms of results, I don’t think anyone gets involved with anything like this without the expectation of going out to win a gold medal.”
After months of helping to put the pieces of this new program and these new teams in place, that is a sentiment echoed by Jankowski.
“I certainly think we’ll be thrilled if all three of our teams are playing in the semifinals. That means everyone has a chance to win.”