Hlinka Gretzky Cup will showcase best U18 players in the game

Rimouski Oceanic winger Alexis Lafreniere. (Vincent L. Rousseau)

EDMONTON — An international hockey tournament featuring the world’s best players in an age group, held on Canadian soil? Hockey interrupting Edmonton’s short summer window in August?

Seriously… Is the Hlinka Gretzky Cup going to fly?

"You know, you could have asked the same question of the World Junior Championship a number of years ago too," Hockey Canada CEO Tom Renney pointed out. "‘A World Junior tournament at Christmas time? Are you kidding me?’ Now, it’s probably one of the best properties there is."

The message: never underestimate a Canadian fan’s thirst for hockey, particularly when it is a best-on-best men’s game and the highest pedigree available. And this tournament — heretofore known as the Ivan Hlinka tournament and held mostly in the Czech Republic — does not lack for talent.

Whereas the World Junior, or Under-20 world championship, annually loses a few of its best players to the National Hockey League, this tournament does not. As such, it becomes the starting point for the 2019 NHL Entry Draft, with multitudes of NHL general managers and scouts expected at Rogers Place to watch a field entirely comprised of Under-18, draft eligible players.

As such, 77 players from last year’s tournament were chosen in the 2018 NHL draft, seven being drafted in the Top 10. Historically, this tournament has produced numerous first overall NHL draft picks, including Sidney Crosby, Aaron Ekblad, Joe Thornton, Nathan MacKinnon, Rick Nash, Taylor Hall, Marc-Andre Fleury and Vincent Lecavalier.

And this year Rimouski winger Alexis Lafreniere — the early favorite to go first overall in 2020 — is expected to star for Canada.

"(The Hlinka Gretzky) will take time to get some traction, we understand that," said Renney. That’s why they’ve teamed up with the Oilers, respectfully added Wayne Gretzky’s surname after Hlinka’s, and quietly consider this another crown jewel in Hockey Canada’s Program of Excellence crown.

Remember, the Program of Excellence began back in 1982 as a project that could provide international exposure for players as young as 17 years old, that would leave them with big-ice experience should they graduate all the way to those old, amateur-built Hockey Canada Olympic teams.

Much has changed in 2018, with Renney’s group leaving the U-16 level to the provinces, but taking over control of selecting national team candidates from age 17 and up. The U17 protocol used to be that Hockey Canada took a certain number of players from each region across Canada. Those days are gone.

"Now we are taking what we deem to be the best 112 players in the country — no matter where they’re from," Renney said. "There are no quotas. Now we get to that needle head a little sooner, with the right people."

In the 27 years this U18 championships has been held, Canada has won gold 21 times and medalled 24. The red Maple Leaf has won nine of the past 10 tournaments, as our polite Canadian persona gives way to a nation that sees itself as the best hockey country in the world, and is OK with acting that way.

"It is high performance. We need to win — to put our best players on the ice — if we are going to inspire little kids to play," Renney said. "It’s OK to want to be the best at something, but in saying that we want to inspire kids to play regardless of what they become beyond that."

Renney estimates that "around 70 percent" of players who wear the Team Canada sweater at the U-18 level end up playing in the World Junior tournament.

It is a quick, Monday-to-Saturday tournament played in Edmonton and the suburb of St. Albert, the town that gave hockey Mark Messier and Jarome Iginla. It features eight of the world’s top hockey nations — Canada, Czech Republic, Finland, Russia, Slovakia, Sweden, Switzerland and the United States.

Three rule changes will be experimented with during the tournament:

• A team will lose the opportunity to change lines if a defending player or goaltender unintentionally dislodges the net, augmenting the current rule that a minor penalty will be assessed to any player who deliberately dislodges the net.

• Teams awarded a power play may choose which offensive zone circle the ensuing face-off will occur, regardless of where the penalty was called.

• When the power play team makes its decision, the short-handed team will be allowed to change lines first, followed by a line change by the power play team if necessary.

Canada is in a pool with Switzerland, Slovakia and Sweden, played out Monday through Wednesday. After an off day Thursday, the semifinals go Friday before the medal games are played next Saturday.

Hockey in August.

Let’s face it: We’re hooked on the game.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.