For the past 29 years, Canada has competed in the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge with five regional entries, featuring 110 players from across the country.
That’s about to change. Atlantic, Quebec, Ontario, West and Pacific will compete one final time as regional representatives when the 2014 event kicks off on Dec. 29 in Cape Breton, N.S.
Beginning next season, the best 66 Canadian players 17 and under will make up three national teams – Red, White and Black – composed in-house by Hockey Canada and its Program of Excellence.
Five international squads, with the United States, Germany, Czech Republic, Russia and Sweden competing this year, will fill out the freshly remodeled eight-team format.
With the best of the best in tow, Scott Salmond, Hockey Canada’s senior director of hockey operations and national teams, believes the move to a national program will better prepare Canadian players for the upper levels of international play.
“In our country, one of our biggest strengths and one of our biggest challenges is the number of players we have to evaluate,” he said. “In the old model, although it was very good, I don't think we were always getting the best players, due to the regional restrictions.
“We want to spend more time with our best players. That's our new mantra. When you look at the competition around world, it's a consistent theme. It's what the Swedes do, it's what the Russians do and it's what the Americans do. We want to make sure that we're spending the time to develop our top athletes in the best way possible.”
Next summer, more than 100 of the nation’s top players born in 1998 or later will be invited to Calgary to participate in a nine-day camp dutifully devoted to skill development, chalk talk, education and evaluation – a first-of-its-kind, strategic assessment tool for Hockey Canada’s U17 program.
Ryan Jankowski, head scout for the Program of Excellence, and his three regional scouts, Brad McEwen (Western Canada), Darryl Woodley (Ontario) and Donald Audette (Quebec and Atlantic Canada), will identify a list of players throughout the season and continue evaluating them once they return to their club teams.
In addition to scouting for the National Junior Team and National Men’s Under-18 Team, Jankowski will now be attending a bundle of U16 events hosted by the Canadian Hockey League branches, including the WHL’s Western Canada Challenge Cup, and OHL and QMJHL Gold Cups.
“Collectively, we’re going to be paying special attention to those events and making sure our regional scouts are on top of the players from their area,” Jankowski said, noting another revision to the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge format, beginning next year.
Instead of competing in late December, when most club teams would be arriving at the midway point of the hockey season, the tournament will now be held at the beginning of November.
“The best part, from the players’ perspective, is that there will now be such a short period between the summer evaluation camp and the event. Everything will be fresh in their mind, and players will be able to use this event as a springboard for their own development after starting the year with their club teams.
“The added bonus is that it gives our young players a rest at Christmas time, which is important.
“I love the changes. When the players arrive at the World Juniors, they will have already been a part of the program since the age of 16, instead of 17 when they’d be preparing for the (Memorial of) Ivan Hlinka (summer under-18 tournament).”
Since 1986, more than 1,200 NHL draft picks have played in the U17 tournament, including former first-overall selections Rick Nash, Alexander Ovechkin, Patrick Kane, Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, to name just a few.
Nugent-Hopkins, who recorded a goal and four assists with Pacific back in 2010, is especially supportive of the changes.
“I think it's an awesome idea,” he said, echoing the positive sentiment Salmond and Jankowski have heard a lot since the changes were announced. “At that age, it’s all about skill development and doing it in a competitive environment.
“A lot of those kids will be going on to the U18s, the World Juniors and some will even be going on to the Olympics one day. It will be their first chance at something like that, so the earlier they can be coached on the international game, the better.”
Nugent-Hopkins attended Canada’s National Junior Team selection camp in 2011, but was among the final few players cut. He wasn’t ready, many argued, including the player himself.
Thanks to the NHL lockout, he eventually got his chance to suit up at the IIHF World Junior Championship last year in Ufa, Russia, after missing out as a 17-year-old.
“It’s a huge step up from the U17 and U18s,” Nugent-Hopkins said. “It’s great to see Hockey Canada and [the Program of Excellence] innovating in player development like this.
“It’s going to give them the best possible opportunity to win down the road.”
Salmond agrees, adding that these changes wouldn’t be possible if not for the branches and their work in developing world-class, provincial under-16 programs.
They will continue to spearhead those initiatives, shaping the future of Canada’s vast talent pool at the grassroots level.
“Because of their efforts in recent years, players are ready to become part of a national program at a younger age,” Salmond said. “Fewer kids now get that opportunity, but at the end of the day, when we do our research looking back over the past 10 years, of those 110 kids that used to compete at the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge, the number of players moving through to the U18s and the National Junior Team wasn’t as high as we feel it could have been.
“With the opportunity to bring all our top players together in a national team setting, we feel these changes are going to do great things for our program.
“It’s a huge step for us and the evolution of the Program of Excellence. We’re all very excited about it.”