Imagine two hot-housed all-star teams (under-17 and under-18) dedicated to developing not just NHL prospects, but players who could win Canada golds in international tournaments.
Basking in the afterglow of a world junior gold on Russian ice two years ago, future Nashville defenseman
Seth Jones let some knowledge drop on me: he had played with almost every other member of the U.S. D-corps in the past. That’s because Jones was a graduate of the U.S. National Team Development Program, just like
Connor Murphy and
Pat Sieloff. Eight members of that squad also won gold at the 2011 world under-18s, a tournament the Americans have dominated for the past decade, winning seven of 10 gold medals. There was a familiarity among the unit, and it translated on the ice. And since Canada has struggled to reach its lofty goals at the WJC lately (the CHL playoffs conflict with the under-18s so success there is haphazard), I began wondering if it was time for a Canadian NTDP. Imagine two hot-housed all-star teams (under-17 and under-18) dedicated to developing not just NHL prospects, but players who could win Canada golds in international tournaments. In the past five years, the Canucks have only one title in 10 tries combined at the under-18s and world juniors.
I called up Bruce Hamilton, perhaps the perfect man to weigh in on the topic. Not only is Hamilton the GM and owner of the Western League’s Kelowna Rockets, but he is also part of Hockey Canada’s Program of Excellence team. “Obviously,” he said, “I have no interest in it.” And fair play on that. I realize it’s a tall order to ask a CHL manager to give up one or two of his best young talents for two years in a league where the best players might play three seasons tops, but I thought at least the Hockey Canada side of Hamilton would be intrigued. Not so much. “I’m a huge supporter of the club system in Canada,” he said. “The best players on a team make other players better.” And Hamilton is drilling down to midget, bantam and younger on this topic. He believes if Canada is going to turn around in global tournaments, bright skill-development minds such as new Hockey Canada president and CEO Tom Renney need to be unleashed on the 11- and 12-year-olds of the nation.
Along with bringing in Renney, Hamilton and a host of others into the fold lately, Hockey Canada also pared down the amount of teams it sends to the World Under-17 Challenge. It used to be five, based on geography (Team Ontario, Team Pacific, etc.). Now it’s down to three, with kids mixed in from across the country. The early results? Bad. In an eight-team tournament, none of Canada’s squads even made the semifinals and no Canadian player finished top-10 in scoring.
Meanwhile, Team USA went 5-1, only losing to the Russians in the final. The Americans were powered by the NTDP’s under-17 squad, which plays most of the season against older competition in the United States League. The NTDP’s under-18s play USHL teams and big-time college programs such as Michigan and Boston University, the logic being that the stronger, older competition will challenge them as they grow. Hamilton, also the chairman of the WHL’s board of governors, poured water on the idea of my proposed teams playing against major junior clubs, so maybe Team Canada plays Jr. A squads and seasoned Canadian university teams. And of course, the Canadians would play in international tournaments. Would elite talents sign up? Every player says it’s an honor to put on a Team Canada sweater, and this would test the theory. Major junior is still seen as the quickest route to the NHL thanks to its pro-style schedule and level of competition, even as the NCAA is producing gems now, too, many from the NTDP. Maybe the will for a Canadian national team’s not there, but if the Canucks fail to medal at the world juniors for a third straight year, fans are going to start wondering about the status quo.
This feature appeared in the Jan. 5 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.