Under the changes to the governing body’s Program of Excellence that were rolled out last year, the annual world under-17 challenge tournament has received an overhaul. The annual tournament is a huge stepping stone for rookies in major junior hockey who have ambitions to possibly wear the Maple Leaf at the all-important world junior championship.
However, the traditional five-team regional model is out. Instead, Canada will invite 108 players to a July camp in Calgary. Eventually, those whom it deems the best 66 will be sorted into three squads, Canada Red, Canada White and Canada Black, for the under-17. The tournament will also shift from the week after Christmas to November.
“We just want to make sure that we have the best players earlier, that they were getting a message earlier,” says Scott Salmond, Hockey Canada’s senior director of hockey operations for men’s national teams. “We did a 10-year review of our program and then we did a review of our competition. And the number of days and the number of camps the competition has been having far surpasses ours. So I guess the idea of having our best players together more often, under a more controlled setting, is very appealing to us.”
The regional model served its purpose (“they’ve done a good job of identifying the best players in their part of the country,” Salmond says) but did have unintended consequences. For one, sometimes the notion of proving regional bragging rights – think of Ontario going up against Quebec or Team Atlantic trying to punch above its weight – could have as much sway with 15- and 16-year-old players as the big-picture idea of representing the country.
Being limited to using 22 players from populous Ontario, along with sensitivity about avoiding the appearance of regional biases in naming rosters, particularly for the multi-province Atlantic, Pacific and Western squads, combined to impair Canada’s competitiveness in the event. Only one Canadian team won a medal at the 2014 world U17 in Cape Breton, with Team Pacific taking silver after a loss in the final to Team USA.
“We weren’t necessarily having the best players at under-17,” Salmond says. “We were having the best players from each region. Conceivably, you could be the third-best goaltender in Canada but also be the third-best in Alberta or British Columbia [the Pacific region] and not get an opportunity at under-17.
“We wanted to eliminate those kind of quotas and just look at the best players. What does that mean when I look at the best players? We want to make sure there is space for all of the best players. We know that there were players in Ontario who were missed at the under-17.
“We also want consistent in our approach and giving them what we call the ‘Canadian way’ and impressing upon them how we do things at Hockey Canada. When we get them back at under-18 and, more importantly, at under-20, they’ll have a real base of expectations with how things are going to work with international hockey.”
While much is made of how Canada has a higher volume of hockey players than most of its international rivals, dealing in large numbers is easier said than done. Being able to, as Salmond puts it, “compare the best kids from B.C. to the best kids from Newfoundland and all points in between” is a set of challenges separate from those faced by countries with much more compact hockey culture. Both Finland and Sweden, which have an easier time maintaining contact with top young players, have won a world junior gold medal in the past three years.
The old approach also pointed out a conundrum. While Canada’s players might have been thinking about representing their region, it was still a Maple Leaf-wearing opponent for the five international squads.
“It should be more of a nationalistic approach – if you’re from Finland, Russia, Sweden or the U.S., you don’t really care if it’s Ontario or Atlantic,” Salmond says. “All you see is that Canadian jersey. Any time that we play an international team, I want those teams to know they’re going to be in for a real battle. To have three national teams, I think we’re going to be more competitive and send a stronger message to those teams earlier that ‘if you’re going to beat us, you’re going to have to be very good.’
“As important as it is for us, it’s important for those countries to understand that too.”
Slimming down to three U17 teams means Hockey Canada head scout Ryan Jankowski and a staff of regional scouts will spend weeks scrutinizing regional showcase tournaments for prospective major junior players. That includes the WHL-organized Western Challenge, the QMJHL’s Excellence Challenge and the OHL Gold Cup, which takes place in early May in Kitchener.
The new approach will also allow coaches to get an earlier look at a young player in defined role. Salmond and Hockey Canada intend to try to keep Canada Black, Canada Red and Canada White relatively even, and also mix up players from different corners of the country.
“We’re going to build teams,” he says. “We’re not going to have seven skilled offensive defenceman on one team. We are also going to be aware of where the kids are from in the country and have the idea of assimilating players from an earlier age. One thing can do, for instance, is mix the French-speaking players in with the English-speaking players start to get them more comfortable in that environment.”
The guiding principle behind these changes is, as Salmond outlined, getting players to have the “feeling of a program” from an early age. Canadian teams, as witnessed during the 2014 Sochi Olympics, have long shown they can quickly gel in pursuit of a common goal. The national junior team’s fortunes have regressed since its five-year gold-medal run from 2005-09, but that characteristic has also been borne out at the youth level, where Canada won the springtime world under-18 in 2013 for the first time in five seasons.
Like NHLers, teenaged junior players also have priorities to their full-time teams in the Canadian Hockey League. The changes to the POE also include giving national team players more direct feedback on their progress through a private website.
“The number one factor [with these changes] is consistency in the way we identify, prepare and train our best young players in the country for participation in a national team, whether it’s under-18, under-20, or under-17,” says Salmond.
As far as fan appeal goes, the U17 will no longer conflict with the world junior. Staging an eight-team event instead of 10 also means better simulating the medal round format of the WJC, which no longer has byes to the semifinal.
“What it allows us to do is to have a quarter-final,” Salmond says. “So now again, these players are understanding the pressures of playing in a must-win quarter-final game.”
The change on the calendar also recognized the toll that losing players to two different tournaments can take on major junior teams. Additionally, it provides more downtime to CHL rookies, who often hit a figurative ‘wall’ in the second half of the season.
“For young players, it’s almost always their first experience playing away from home and now you’re not getting a chance to be with family and rest. This will allow them to do that.”
Neate Sager (@neatebuzzthenet) covers junior hockey for Yahoo! Canada Sports.