THE CANADIAN PRESS
The youngster widely considered Canada’s best hockey prospect since Sidney Crosby didn’t get his wish to play in the world junior championship.
Instead, 15-year-old Connor McDavid of the Ontario Hockey League’s Erie Otters will be the star attraction at the world under-17 championship that begins Saturday in Victoriaville and Drummondville, Que.
The Newmarket, Ont., native will help make talent-rich Team Ontario the favourite to claim gold at the 10-team tournament.
"He’s been Erie’s best forward all year and he’s fun to watch," said Ontario coach Troy Smith, who also patrols behind the bench for the Kitchener Rangers. "Being 15, I’m sure he’ll be out to prove he belongs."
McDavid won’t be eligible for the NHL draft until 2015, while most players will be in the class of 2014. But he has already gained international experience skating for the OHL against Russia in the Subway Series in November.
"There’s always hype in any sport, but this kid really lives up to it," said Mark Edwards of Hockey Prospect, an independent scouting service. "He’s special, and he’s a great kid too."
The under-17 tournament has five Canadian teams — the Atlantic, Quebec, Ontario, West and Pacific — as well as national squads from the United States, Russia, Sweden, Finland and Slovakia.
Russia won last year in Windsor, Ont.
Ontario will be seeking a fourth gold medal in six years and ninth overall. Quebec, the West, the U.S. and Russia have each won three times, while Finland won once in 1990.
The OHL has only three times ever granted "exceptional status," which allows a player to play major junior hockey a year early at age 15. Two of them will play for Ontario — defenceman Aaron Ekblad who was the league’s first overall draft pick of 2011 by the Barrie Colts, and McDavid, who went first to Erie this year.
Ontario will have four players from the Kingston Frontenacs, and Smith said two of them, Sam Bennett and Spencer Watson, will start the tournament as McDavid’s linemates. McDavid and Bennett played minor hockey together.
He said Ekblad will also be key as the lone returning player from last year’s tournament.
Smith will be at his fourth under-17 world event, second as head coach. He said the challenges are to jell quickly as a team, avoid injuries and to get some breaks.
Quebec will play host to the event for the first time since 1994 and will also be a contender with former NHL sniper Donald Audette as head coach and his son, 16-year-old Daniel Audette, as his star player.
Daniel Audette was selected first overall in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League draft this year by the expansion Sherbrooke Phoenix, who have four players on the squad.
"They’re 16 years old but they’ve been playing a lot," said Donald Audette. "They’re a step ahead of the ones who don’t play as much."
As for coaching his son, Audette said: "He knows he’ll be treated like another kid. If he plays well, he’ll play more. We’re definitely looking forward to his offensive contributions. He wasn’t first overall for nothing. And he was there last year and is the only one with experience at that level."
Team Quebec has three players from the Victoriaville Tigres who will be skating on home ice, and Audette hopes crowd support will give his side extra legs.
"But I’m not trying to put more pressure on them because we’re in Quebec," he said. "We’ll try to concentrate on doing our best as a team."
Another Tigre, forward Lucas Bat, will skate for Team Atlantic, which will be an underdog with only nine of its 22 players from major junior clubs. However, Edwards points out small, skilled forward Nathan Noel, now honing his skills at Shattuck St. Mary’s school, and Mason McDonald of the Acadie-Bathurst Titans, the first goalie picked in this year’s QMJHL draft.
Team Pacific did not select its own 15-year-old phenom Matthew Barzal, the WHL No. 1 pick by the Seattle Thunderbirds. Defenceman Brycen Martin of the Swift Current Broncos is one to watch.
Team West has three forwards from Moose Jaw, Josh Ulrich, Rhett Gardner and Miles Warkentine, while another Warrior, Brayden Point, plays for the Pacific. Hard-shooting defenceman Ryan Pilon of the Lethbridge Hurricanes should draw attention.
The American side includes Dominic Turgeon, son of former NHL star Pierre Turgeon, and forward Ryan MacInnis, the son of former defenceman Al MacInnis.
Still another offspring of an NHL player, Kaspari Kapanen, son of Sami, is a physical forward for Finland.
One player Hockey Prospect said would be a "star for sure" of the tournament was Swedish forward William Nylander, the son of former NHL player Michael Nylander. William Nylander was born in Calgary in 1996 while his father played for the Flames and was raised mostly in the U.S.
Edwards considers the tournament ideal for scouting as it brings nearly all the best prospects from their age group together in one place.
"This year will be one of the better world junior tournaments, but mainly they’re already drafted," he said. "So you’ll see a big emphasis on the under-17.
"You get a free look at the best in the world a year in advance (of their draft year)."
The teams are split into two five-squad groups, with the West, the Pacific, Finland, Russia and Sweden in Group A and Quebec, Ontario, the Atlantic, the U.S. and Slovakia in Group B. The top two from each group reach the semifinals, with the final Jan. 4 in Victoriaville.
Play opens Saturday with Sweden facing the West, Ontario versus the U.S., the Pacific versus Russia and Atlantic versus Quebec. Showdowns of Quebec versus Ontario and the West versus the Pacific are Jan. 2.