The 'other' holiday tournament
World Under-17 Challenge is used to assess prospects for the national junior team
By Ian Walker
December 27, 2008
Its alumni includes some of the National Hockey League's biggest names, past and present. Former luminaries Pierre Turgeon, Alexander Mogilny and Pavel Bure all made their international debuts at the tournament while current household names Roberto Luongo, Mats Sundin, Joe Sakic, Alexander Ovechkin, Jarome Iginla, Vincent Lecavalier, Ilya Kovalchuk, Daniel Briere, Rick Nash, Joe Thornton along with Daniel and Henrik Sedin also used the holiday event as a stepping stone to greater things.
Ryan Getzlaf, Marc-Andre Fleury, Jordan Staal, Duncan Keith, Phil Kessell and Luke Schenn are just a few of the game's budding stars who have the annual gathering to thank for their quick rise to prominence. In fact, you'd be hard pressed to find a NHL roster without at least one graduate of the competition -- which can boast more than 1,000 drafted players since its inception.
Now, if you're rolling your eyes thinking this is just another of the long list of stories hyping the much-ballyhooed IIHF World Junior Hockey Championships, keep reading. Nope. This is a tale of the other international hockey tournament held this time every year. The lesser-known, but no less important, World Under-17 Hockey Challenge, which just so happens to open Monday at the Alberni Valley Multiplex.
Made up of five international teams -- Russia, Finland, USA, Germany and Slovakia -- and five regional teams from across Canada, the tournament is the first step of Hockey Canada's Program of excellence and used to identify players for the U-18 and national junior teams.
Though mostly unappreciated by the masses, the value of the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge isn't lost on those entrusted with keeping Canada at the forefront of hockey's elite.
"It definitely doesn't get the attention it deserves as a result of going head-to-head with the world juniors, but no doubt about it, it's the program that makes the world junior team the success it is," said Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson, speaking earlier this week from the nation's capital, the site of this year's world junior tournament.
"Canada's won four-straight gold medals at the world juniors and I give a lot of that credit to the under-17s. This is the base to our national junior team. So many of the players that will be playing in Ottawa played in the under-17 program just two years ago."
Thirty of the 38 players lacing 'em up for Canada at the world juniors competed at the world under-17s. Two of those players -- Vancouver Giants winger Evander Kane and Windsor Spitfires defenceman Ryan Ellis -- as recently as last year. But enough about that tournament.
"I think that people are going to be more than surprised with the calibre of play they're going to see," said Ron Paulson, a co-chair of the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge. "I thought I knew what I was in for when I saw it in London last year, but still I was blown away. A simple analogy I use when I try to explain it to people is that there is more than 2,500 B.C. athletes available to make up Team Pacific, but only 11 make it. That says it all right there."
To go one further, all but one of Team Pacific's 22-players -- made up of B.C. and Alberta residents -- come from the top-tier Western Hockey League. Team Ontario is comprised of all major junior players while the large majority of Team West, Team Quebec and Team Atlantic compete in one of Canada's three major junior loops.
Locally, the Giants and Chilliwack Bruins will both be represented, with Brendan Gallagher and Kevin Sundher making nice-nice for a week before returning to their respective rival teams. It will be both players first exposure to international competition.
"It's going to be a really cool experience; just seeing how we stack up against international players like the Russians and Slovaks," said Gallagher, who will miss at least a pair of Giants games depending on how far Team Pacific advances in the round robin tournament.
"Obviously, I've never seen any of them play before, so it's going to be a lot of fun to play against them. It's sort of surreal right now, but its going to happen here really soon."
Gallagher admitted the under-17s might not carry the cachet of the world juniors to the general populace, but added people instantly get it once they hear him say the magic words.
"Once you tell them you're representing Canada and get to put on the jersey they understand it's a pretty special thing," said the 16-year-old winger.
Canada comes into the tournament the overwhelming favourite as winners of four-straight gold medals and ten in the last 15 tournaments -- pretty amazing considering the country's talent is divided between five teams. Ontario has won the most titles, with five, followed by Quebec with three and the West with two. The Americans were the last non-Canadian team to be victorious and have three championships to their credit. The Russians and Finns, with one each, are the only other international teams to win the tournament.
Team Pacific will be looking for its first championship in the history of the event and the region's first medal since earning silver in 2005.
This marks the first time the world under-17s has been held west of the Rockies. Funny that; considering the idea and foundation behind the current national junior program was conceived here.
"I can remember back, Dave Andrews, who's now the president of the American Hockey League, and myself were running B.C. Amateur Hockey in 1979 and we started a program that was called the B.C. Junior Olympic Program to expose players to top caliber coaching," says Nicholson, who was recently inducted into the B.C. Hockey Hall of Fame.
Nicholson and Andrews brought in Dave King and Claire Drake, who were coaching at the University of Saskachewan and Alberta, respectively, as well as NHLers Danny Gare and Glenn Anderson to share their knowledge with the province's best young players.
"The next year the world junior concept came into being on a national level and two years later they had the under-17 program, continued Nicholson.
"It all started in B.C., so it brings me a lot of pride and puts a big smile on my face to see the under-17s finally out west and in Port Alberni."
The inaugural World Under-17 Hockey Challenge took place in Quebec in 1986 and was officially called the Quebec Esso Cup. Originally considered the unofficial world championship of Midget hockey, it is now the breeding ground and primary development tool for the world's best young hockey talents.
"Each year country's bring their best players and coaches," says Nicholson. "It's a great experience for all involved. Players are putting on their country's jersey for first time and seeing how the style of play varies in international competition. It introduces a lot of key concepts and has helped us form a great base for the future."
Now you know.
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