The best players in the world. Massive NHL draft implications. Compelling storylines, both at the individual and the team level. This year’s World U-17 Hockey Challenge had it all, and it ended the way Hockey Canada would love to see every major international tournament end: With Canadian gold over a historic rival.
The gold medal game between Canada White (one of three Canadian entries) and Russia was played in front of a raucous crowd at Encana Events Centre in Dawson Creek, B.C., with not just every ticket to the arena’s 4,500 seats sold-out but also every standing room-only ticket purchased as well. The partisans weren’t disappointed; cheering loudly for every big hit and roaring at each of Canada’s goals in the 6-2 victory.
Jaret Anderson-Dolan, who centered the team’s No. 1 line, scored one of those goals and was at a loss for words when asked about the finale.
"It’s unbelievable," he said. "I can’t even explain it really; it’s surreal playing in front of a crowd like that."
Owen Tippett scored a hat trick, goaltender Ian Scott provided his third strong elimination-game showing in as many days, and top 2017 draft prospect Gabe Vilardi put away the 3-2 go-ahead goal in the second period that would ultimately stand up as the game-winner.
It was a fitting end to an event that one scout described as "a hidden gem" in international hockey.
"It’s a rare chance to see all the best players in the world," he said. "You have everybody, including the Americans, who don’t send their top players to the Ivan Hlinka [U-18] tournament. It’s not like the World Championship, where half the players can’t come. Even the [U-20] World Juniors loses a couple of guys to the NHL."
It’s no surprise then that the scouts were out in force. At every game, in each corner of the arena, they were in evidence; grim-faced, hard-eyed men (they’re almost all men) wearing team jackets and bearing coiled notebooks or in rare cases tablets. NHL organizations were well represented and junior teams too had their agents out in the field.
The talent on display was exceptional, something that is evident even if we just skim the tournament’s all-star team. Even ignoring Tippett, who was so impactful in the finale and was praised by a different scout as having "an excellent shot" and "good speed," there was real quality at the event, including:
• Finland’s Eeli Tolvanen, who scored nine times in five contests even after we ignore a four-point night in an exhibition game against the Czechs. Scott Walker, who coached gold medal-winning Canada White admitted that Tolvanen had been a fixture in pre-game planning when the two teams met in the quarter-finals. "Well, we held him to one," he admitted ruefully.
• Winger Maxime Comtois put up seven points in six games for Canada Red, which finished fourth in the tournament. A top-three pick in last year’s QMJHL draft, he entered the tournament with a staggering 21 points in just 16 games in the Q at the tender age of 16.
• Defencemen Evan Bouchard and Timothy Liljegren (Sweden) were key offensive cogs for their teams, combining for 11 points in 12 games. Liljegren was a force in the bronze medal game, scoring one of his three goals there and playing well at both ends of the ice in a Swedish win. Bouchard, who isn’t draft eligible until 2018, scored six points and collected a gold medal with Canada White. He’s already attracting the attention of scouts. "He plays like a much older player than he is," said one.
• Russian goaltender Maxim Zhukov was shaky in the gold medal game, but it’s hard to blame him given that he was playing his sixth game in seven days. He stopped 25 of 26 shots in the quarter-final and the night before the gold medal game made 50 saves on 52 shots in game action against Canada Red before turning aside all six shooters he faced in the shootout. No other goalie played as many minutes as the 6-foot-2 stopper from Kaliningrad.
It’s a tournament so rich in talent that a Canada Black team featuring Joe Veleno (granted exceptional status by Hockey Canada, like John Tavares and Connor McDavid before him) finished last overall and Veleno himself didn’t really stand out. That team lost its final placement game to a Czech entry captained by 2017-eligible Martin Necas. Brady Tkachuk and Team USA went a perfect 3-0 and were dominant in the round robin, but lost their first elimination game and ended the tournament on a sour note, falling by a single goal to Tolvanen and the Finns.
Sweden and Canada Red both faced the challenge of coming back from brutally close semifinal losses. The Swedes, who had gone 0-3 in the preliminary round before knocking out the Americans, did better; they stormed to a 3-0 lead against Canada and then shut the gate the rest of the way. It was a clinical win, and by putting the Canadians in a big hole early, Sweden was able to take the crowd out of the game immediately.
Russia tried to do the same in the finale, at one point holding a 2-1 lead, but then its exhausted starting goalie gave out and the floodgates opened. It was a hard blow. After the game, Russian coach Sergey Golubovich opened by congratulating Team Canada and praising the rich development opportunity afforded by the tournament, but clearly he felt it; asked for his thoughts on star forward Klim Kostin, he struggled with visible emotion before offering a brief response.
"Great player," his translator relayed quietly. "Little thoughts."
Only Canada White left without regrets, but realistically there wasn’t a bad team at the event, and the 16-year-olds who leave will be better for having taken part. This was the first chance for everyone involved to get a clear look at how they stacked up against the best players on the planet, and for many here the lessons learned will come in handy down the road as they continue their careers both at the professional and the international level.
The one man who may not get the chance to apply those lessons is Scott Walker, the coach of Canada White who told reporters earlier in the tournament that this was going to be his final foray behind the bench. He reiterated that after the win Saturday, perhaps thinking back to the way his team had to rally from early deficits in all three elimination games it played.
"I’m definitely stepping away," he said. "It was a thrill, but it takes years off your life."