One of the stories that kind of flew under the radar this summer was Hockey Canada’s new development model when it comes to picking its teams for the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge. The players who are picked for that tournament from now on will be judged solely on their hockey talents, not their hometown.
Prior to this year’s tournament, which will be held in late December and early January in Sarnia, Hockey Canada submitted five regional teams from Atlantic Canada, Quebec, Ontario, Western Canada and British Columbia. Those rosters included total of 110 16-year-old players from coast-to-coast, but it didn’t encompass the best 110 16-year-old players in Canada. And the problem with that is all Canada’s opponents in the tournament – USA, Russia, Finland, Sweden and Germany – were sending the top 22 players from their countries.
“When you’re from Russia or Finland or Sweden, you don’t know anything about Atlantic Canada,” said Hockey Canada’s senior director of hockey operations Scott Salmond. “All they see is a Canadian sweater and it’s a big thrill to beat that team. In our organization, we want to have a culture of winning and the sooner we start that, the better.”
After seeing its regional teams win five of the tournaments in a row, a Canadian team has won just one of its past four tournaments and wasn’t even on the podium last year. It might be a stretch to suggest that lack of success at the Under-17s has trickled up to Canada’s struggles at the World Junior Championship, but it’s all about cultivating the best talent so that by the time the players are playing in the WJC, they’re more familiar with one another.
So instead of having five regional teams, Hockey Canada instead had a camp this past summer with the 108 best 16-year-olds, regardless of geography. From that, three rosters of 22 players each will be chosen for the Under-17 World Hockey Challenge, so French speaking players from Quebec will be playing with Anglophones from British Columbia, Maritimers with players from Ontario. That way, as Salmond pointed out, the third-best goaltender in Ontario might get a chance to play in the tournament, “because he might also be the third-best goalie in all of Canada. We needed to get this quota system out of it and have the absolute best players together more often.”
The team will be selected by Hockey Canada head scout Ryan Jankowski and his regional scouts and while the three coaches – Jean-Francois Houle, Sheldon Keefe and Dan Lambert – will have some input, they will for the most part be handed their roster and told to coach the players they have been given.
This, of course, has raised the dander of those who think Hockey Canada is further catering to only elite players. By decreasing the player pool at the under-17 level by 44 players and possibly eliminating the chance for unknown players from small towns to be exposed to a high level of competition, is Hockey Canada guilty of identify and catering to only the best of the best at too young an age? Salmond says Hockey Canada’s tracking over the last decade indicates that the best players in any age group tend to move on to the elite teams anyway. Just because the 10th best player in Newfoundland gets a chance to play in the under-17s doesn’t necessarily mean he’s going to elevate his game in the following years and be part of the top group of players.
“And this is not mass participation,” Salmond said. “It is a Program of Excellence and we’re not going to apologize for that.”