Hockey Canada overhauls U17 men’s program

President and CEO of Hockey Canada Tom Renney. Jeff McIntosh/CP

CALGARY — Hockey Canada begins an overhaul of its under-17 men’s program this week by bringing together more than 100 of the country’s best 16-year-olds for a new camp.

Along with 54 coaches, equipment managers and medical staff, the nine-day camp in Calgary will be “massive,” according to Scott Salmond, vice-president of hockey operations at Hockey Canada.

“You can imagine how many trainers we need,” Salmond said.

Ninety-six skaters and a dozen goaltenders from across Canada will descend Tuesday upon the Markin MacPhail Centre, which houses Hockey Canada’s headquarters, an Olympic-sized rink and three NHL-sized surfaces.

The horde will be divided into teams. In addition to playing three games, each player will participate in on-ice skills development and learn national-team systems.

Their fitness will be tested, they’ll be fitted for equipment and they’ll participate in seminars on everything from media relations to nutrition.

Among the players summoned are Toronto defenceman Jake Chychrun, the first overall pick in this year’s OHL draft by Sarnia. Defenceman Luke Green of Bedford, N.S., was the first player drafted in the QMJHL by Saint John. Edmonton forward Tyler Benson was chosen first in last year’s WHL draft by Vancouver.

Sixty-six invitees will be chosen to represent their country at the revamped World Under-17 Hockey Challenge. The date of the annual tournament held in Canada has been changed as well as the host country’s participation in it.

Instead of five teams representing Atlantic, Quebec, Ontario, West and Pacific regions, Canada will enter three teams mixing players from different parts of the country.

That means the Canadians will now play in the tournament under the banner of their country, and not their geographical region.

“We expect to have a large majority of our players identified at the camp and then go out and scout the remaining few on the bubble once the camp is over and before we name our teams,” head scout Ryan Jankowski said.

The World Under-17 Hockey Challenge has traditionally been held in late December during its 22 years, but the event will be Nov. 2-8 in Sarnia, Ont.

That date was changed to allow young hockey players to go home for the December holiday break. For those major junior teams with players away at the world under-20 championships, the younger players on those clubs will get more ice time, Salmond said.

Canadians in the Under-17 Challenge have gone on to play for the under-18, under-20, world and Olympic men’s teams. The tournament includes European countries as well as the United States.

Ilya Kovalchuk, Rick Nash, Marc-Andre Fleury, Alex Ovechkin, Patrick Kane and Nathan MacKinnon are among the 1,300 NHL draft picks who have participated in it, according to Hockey Canada.

The new camp was conceived to give Canada’s 16-year-olds intensive preparation for the world stage sooner under the slogan “The Canadian way,” Salmond explained.

“Our idea is to identify our best players earlier and then to have them play together more often,” he said. “When they were in a regionalized model, I think we were still doing a good job of identifying our best players regionally, but not nationally. They stayed in regional model until they came through to under-18s.”

“Now, we have the best players in the country and they come all to one place. We end up picking three teams that will have no regional bias. Kids from Quebec will play with kids from Alberta. It gives us an opportunity for our best players to be mixed together and for them to play together more often.”

Of the 108 players summoned to Calgary, 10 are from B.C., 14 are Albertans, two are from Saskatchewan, six are Manitobans, Ontario has 40 and Quebec has 25. Nova Scotia will have nine players at camp and there are two from Newfoundland and Labrador.

The provincial branches of Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, Northwest Territories, Nunavut and Yukon are not represented among the skaters.

“There are some branches who don’t have a player coming from the 108,” Salmond said.

“Part of our job is to work with our branches and those branches who feel like ‘Hey, we didn’t have a player this year, we need to have more next year’ that helps us in our development. It encourages people to do more.”

Jankowski and four regional scouts compiled the camp roster. The head scout says the camp’s format will force those players considered the best in their region to compete harder for the opportunity to play in the under-17 tournament.

“He is now put out of his comfort zone and comparing himself to players from other areas,” Jankowski said.

The coaches of the Red, Black and White teams and the six assistants will run on-ice sessions. Sheldon Keefe of the OHL’s Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, Dan Lambert of the WHL’s Kelowna Rockets and McGill University’s Kelly Nobes are the head coaches.

Each province will send their 2015 Canada Games coach to the Calgary camp to be a guest coach.

One other reason for the program overhaul is Canada’s under-20 men’s hockey team finished fourth at the last two world junior championships after 14 consecutive years in the medals. Canada needs to find and develop the right players to get back on the podium, Salmond said.

“Everything in our organization is performance-related,” Salmond said. “Our goal is to be the best and to win gold medals.”

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