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No NHL, no problem: Detroit international

Detroit Honeybaked finished first in the Toronto Marlboros International Holiday Classic bantam tournament over the holiday break. (Ken Campbell/THN)

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Detroit Honeybaked finished first in the Toronto Marlboros International Holiday Classic bantam tournament over the holiday break. (Ken Campbell/THN)

Dec. 30 – Canlan Ice Sports, Etobicoke, Ont.

Detroit Honeybaked 3
Noah LaLonde (2), Mitchell Lewandowski

Ottawa Valley Titans 1
Cole Timchuk

The best thing about the holiday season when it comes to hockey is the World Junior Championship. There is no doubt about that. But a close second is taking in one of the hundreds of minor hockey tournaments held at this time of the year. If you haven’t watched minor hockey lately, prepare to be amazed. These kids are doing some very special things.

And they don’t get much bigger than the Toronto Marlboros International Holiday Classic, a five-day event that features bantam and midget tournaments from both sides of the North American border and beyond. A total of 146 AAA teams in three age groups take part in the tournament and it features some terrific hockey.

Case in point was the major bantam final for 1998-born players, which pitted Detroit Honeybaked against the Ottawa Valley Titans.

Fourteen-year-old Germann Samvel typifies the melting pot that is the Detroit Honeybaked bantam team. It all started when he sent the team an email last year from his home in Estonia requesting a tryout.

“Then he came to our prospect camp and played his way onto the team,” said Honeybaked coach and former NHLer Pat Peake. “And the rest is history.”

The group of 1998-born players on the Honeybaked make up one of the best bantam teams in North America, and probably the world. Which is appropriate, since the team is made up of a group of players from all over the map. And there is a healthy dosage of NHL experience and bloodlines on the team. One of Peake’s assistant coaches is Kevin Hatcher, a first round pick in 1984 who patrolled the bluelines of five NHL teams for 16 seasons. Igor Larionov, the son of the NHL Hall of Famer of the same name, plays center. One of the team’s goalies is Dylan St. Cyr, who is the son of Manon Rheaume, the only woman to ever appear in an NHL pre-season game. Ben Gleason, who is the cousin of Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Tim, is also on the team.

It’s a hodge-podge of players that works for Honeybaked, one of the elite AAA Detroit minor hockey associations along with Little Caesars, Compuware and Belle Tire. It’s also one that attracts players from all over the United States. Team captain Nick Pastujov and his 1999-born brother Michael are from Tampa and are billeting this season with a Detroit family. Forward Shaun Bily is from New Jersey and Patrick Khodorenko is from San Jose. Even though Michigan is one of the most prominent hotspots for hockey participation in the U.S., teams are not hesitant to welcome players from out-of-state or out-of-country if it makes them better.

And there is little doubt Honeybaked is turning heads. Peake has been coaching with the organization for the past 11 years and has had teams that have won national championships, but said this is the best group he’s ever coached. Players such as Pastujov, Khodorenko, Mitch Eliot, Ryan Bederka and Noah LaLonde will receive plenty of interest from Ontario League teams when they play as minor midgets next season.

Pastujov, who is in his second season playing in the Honeybaked organization, turns 15 in late January and will likely have to decide between major junior hockey and USA Hockey’s under-17 program after next season. His father, George, left Russia when he was 28 and settled in Florida, where Pastujov played all his minor hockey before realizing he had to come north to expose himself to better competition.

“Yeah, there are decisions that need to be made,” he said. “But there will be time for those. Meanwhile, I just dream of making it to the NHL like everyone else does.”

Peake, who starred in the OHL before having his career ended prematurely because of injury, will move up with this team to coach it in the midget ranks and continue to try to move players to the next level. One of them is Larionov, a player with whom Peake can relate. This season has been a terrible one for Larionov in terms of injuries. He missed more than 30 games with a knee injury and concussion, then pulled his hip flexor early in the Toronto Marlboros tournament.

“It’s all about preparing the kids for the next level,” Peake said. “When you get a player like (former Honeybaked defenseman) Cam Fowler calling you from Anaheim saying, ‘Coach I was minus-four tonight. I’ve never been minus-four in my life, what do I do?’ you know you’ve had an effect on them.

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