First glance at future Canadian stars brings intrigue, but few fans

Canada's Josh Williams (15) and Jamieson Rees (10) celebrate a goal during third period Hlinka Gretzky Cup action against Slovakia, in Edmonton on Tuesday, Aug. 7, 2018. (Codie McLachlan/CP)

EDMONTON — This is where we see them first. Where kids like Kirby Dach skate by and you watch the way he holds his stick, the way he passes the puck. You think “Ryan Getzlaf.”

The place where you keep checking your program to see that Canada No. 10 is Jamieson Rees, a small, every-day package that just continues to make you say, “Nice play” or, “Good hustle.”

This is an early stage in Hockey Canada’s Program of Excellence, where you can get to know a kid who might just be around for the world juniors in a year or two. And after that, who knows?

“Without working hard, you don’t have a chance at this,” Rees, a Hamilton native said after he’d perfectly set up teammate Josh Williams for the final goal in a 4-2 Canada win over Slovakia. Rees is that kid who you might not have come to the rink to see, but you leave talking about.

Rees made Team Canada at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup, folks close to the team say, because he showed the Canadian coaches exactly what we saw at Rogers Place on Tuesday night.

“Going to that U18 camp, everyone had a chance of making the team. It just came down to work ethic. Who wanted it more,” he said. “To lead into the next level (the world juniors), it’s exciting. But you’re nowhere near it yet. Still a lot of work to go.”

“Everybody out here has around the same skill level,” he reasons. “If you don’t compete, then you’re going to be the same as everybody else. If you compete, you can separate yourself from everybody else.”

We’re testing Canadians’ desire for summer hockey this month in Western Canada, first with the World Junior Showcase in Kamloops last week, and now the arrival of the freshly minted Hlinka Gretzky Cup here in Edmonton.

You might think it’s a no-brainer: Canadians and top-level hockey. A puck and the red Maple Leaf. It shouldn’t matter what time of year they play the games, right?

Well, the attendance in Kamloops last week was below what was expected. On a beautiful August week in British Columbia fewer people opted for a shivery hockey rink than organizers had hoped, despite the fact our country is absolutely crazy about the world junior championship each Christmas.

In Edmonton, where the Hlinka Gretzky Cup will play every second year through 2022, they are making baby steps. On a lovely 29 C holiday Monday, they pushed 7,000 through the turnstiles at Rogers Place versus Switzerland, but on Tuesday they needed only half the lower bowl to house a spotty crowd of just over 3,000, we’d estimate.

Summers are short, hockey rinks are cold and, unlike the under-20 age group, none of these kids have been drafted. As such, the players in Alberta this week are not affiliated with anyone’s favourite NHL team just yet, the way the Vancouver-Victoria world junior tournament this Christmas will sell some tickets on the back of United States defenceman Quinn Hughes — the Canucks first-rounder this past June.

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This U18 Team Canada is built around the next young star out of Rimouski, Alexis Lafreniere, who scored his first of the tournament on Tuesday. It was one of 58 shots Canada peppered at little Slovakian goalie David Borak, who was the difference between 4-2 and 10-2, stopping four breakaways in the first period alone.

“Their goalie was pretty hot,” said Lafreniere, billed as the consensus No. 1 for the 2020 NHL Draft. “You just try to keep shooting. Our mentality is to bring a lot of pucks to the net. He was hot, but …”

If you keep shooting, something has to go in eventually? “We think so,” he said, chuckling.

This is where we get our first look at the Fort Saskatchewan, Alta., native Dach, a six-three-and-a-half, pass-first centreman who brings to mind a young Ryan Getzlaf.

“That’s one of the guys I compare myself to. The other is Mark Scheifele of the Winnipeg Jets,” Dach said. “I really like to model my game after those two guys.”

Dach got hooked on the Team Canada experience as a kid. Now, he’s living the dream.

“It’s my third time representing Canada, and every time it’s a huge honour.” Dach said. “I think it all started when I was little, watching Jordan Eberle score that goal against Russia (in 2009). That’s when I first fell in love with being part of Team Canada. Ever since then I’ve wanted to wear that name across my chest.”

We are a long ways away from any of these kids becoming household names, but in today’s hockey landscape the path to that place winds through the Gretzky Hlinka Cup.

Canada plays Sweden on Wednesday night. Someone will be a hero.

There’s always a hero.

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