TORONTO — There’s more on the line than just winning for some players at the 2018 CHL Canada-Russia Series. A standout performance could be the difference between watching or playing in the upcoming IIHF world junior hockey championship.
The annual series showcasing the Canadian Hockey League’s top talents begins Monday when the 22 skaters representing the Western Hockey League face Russia’s national junior team in Kamloops, B.C.
Tim Hunter, head coach of Canada’s under-20 squad, will be behind the WHL bench for a first-hand look at players that could potentially crack the Canadian team preparing to defend their gold medal.
"We’re looking to reward guys that have had good starts to their season, with also an opportunity for us to watch them, coach them, get to know them for the Hockey Canada side to see if they’re capable of selection camp in December," said Hunter, who coaches the WHL’s Moose Jaw Warriors.
The Canada-Russia Series started in 2003 and consists of six games against the Russian junior national team. Each of the three leagues making up the CHL — the WHL, Ontario Hockey League and Quebec Major Junior Hockey League — will face off against Russia twice.
Many of the WHL players chosen this year have had past experience with Hockey Canada at various levels, and some were invited to this past summer’s World Junior Showcase led by Hunter.
Goaltender Ian Scott of the Prince Albert Raiders, however, was passed over in June and wasn’t sure if playing at the world juniors was realistic. But a strong start to the season, including being named WHL goalie of the month for October, earned him another look from Hunter at the Canada-Russia Series.
"It’s definitely one of the steps to crack that squad," Scott said. "It was one of my goals that I worked for."
"We never close our doors to guys that didn’t make it to summer camp," said Hunter. "Players develop and mature at different rates and you have to give guys a chance."
The six-game series has largely been made up of veteran junior players already drafted to NHL clubs in years past, but this year’s team has four draft-eligible 17 year olds, including Vancouver Giants defenceman Bowen Byram, who was surprised to be picked by Hunter.
"I kind of had it as a goal in my mind. I didn’t put too much emphasis on it though because it was a bit of a lofty goal," Byram said.
"It’s pretty cool to be recognized especially being a younger guy. I still have to prove that I belong to be there but I’m excited for the opportunity."
Forwards Kirby Dach of the Saskatoon Blades, Dylan Cozens of the Lethbridge Hurricanes and Nolan Foote of the Kelowna Rockets join Byram as NHL draft-eligible prospects on the WHL squad.
"You always try and have some of the younger players in the mix, a lot of these guys have been in the Hockey Canada program and this is just another step for them," Hunter said. "Part of passing the torch on and also they’re all pretty capable players."
Dach leads all 17-year-old WHL skaters in scoring and is fourth overall in the league with 10 goals and 27 points in 16 games, but he doesn’t know if his skills will be enough to take a spot away from an older guy come December.
"It’s a far-fetched goal I’d say but if I get invited to world junior camp it would be a huge honour as a 17 year old going to camp," said Dach.
Warriors defenceman Josh Brook will captain Team WHL, while Lethbridge Hurricanes forward Jordy Bellerive, Everett Silvertips forward Connor Dewar and Portland Winterhawks forward Cody Glass will serve as alternate captains.
All 22 players will be in action with their WHL clubs over the weekend and will join in Kamloops Sunday night for a team meeting, followed by a Monday morning skate.
Game 2 will go Tuesday in Vancouver before the series shifts to Ontario on Thursday for games in Sarnia and Oshawa between Team OHL and Russia. Russia’s final two games will be against Team QMJHL starting Nov. 13 in Sherbrooke, Que., and Nov. 15 in Drummondville, Que.
CHL teams have played to an overall record of 61-22-7, with the WHL splitting last year’s two-game set to see its record go to 20-7-3.
AROUND THE CHL: Baie-Comeau Drakkar forward Ivan Chekhovich is the CHL player of the week after producing five goals and eight points in three games, all wins, that put his team atop the QMJHL standings with a 12-3-1 record. The 19-year-old from Yekaterinburg, Russia, was selected in the seventh round of the 2017 NHL draft by the San Jose Sharks and has 10 goals and 24 points in 16 games to sit fifth in QMJHL scoring. He is expected to play in the upcoming Canada-Russia Series against the QMJHL.
— Stephen Dhillon of the Niagara IceDogs earned CHL goaltender of the week honours after going 3-0-0 with a shutout victory and .970 save percentage. He stopped 97-of-100 total shots to help his IceDogs take over first in the OHL Central Division with a 9-4-2 record. The 20-year-old from Buffalo is on pace for his best numbers in five seasons with Niagara with a 7-2-1 record, 2.59 goals-against average and .921 save percentage.
— As of Wednesday, the top 10 teams in the CHL rankings are: 1. Prince Albert Raiders (WHL, 15-1-0); 2. Ottawa 67’s (OHL, 12-3-1); 3. Baie-Comeau Drakkar (QMJHL, 12-3-1); 4. Rouyn-Noranda Huskies (QMJHL, 12-4-0); 5. Halifax Mooseheads (QMJHL, 12-4-0); 6. Vancouver Giants (WHL, 11-3-2); 7. Victoria Royals (WHL, 9-3-0); 8. Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds (OHL, 10-3-3); 9. Moncton Wildcats (QMJHL, 12-3-2).; 10. Red Deer Rebels (WHL, 10-4-1).