The World Jr. A Challenge is coming up on Nov. 4-10 in Nova Scotia and Canada's contingent is broken up into two teams, East and West. I checked out the East's camp in Oakville, Ont., on Wednesday, where the kids vying for spots played off in two games. While the Jr. A Challenge will feature players in their late teens, a couple of 1997 birthdays caught my eye in the first game.
The most obvious was goaltender Ben Blacker, who spent the whole contest matching fellow netminder Darren Smith in the heroics department. Both goalies registered shutouts, despite numerous good chances and Blacker was particularly adept with his glove hand. In the end, the game went to a shootout and even that proved difficult for the shooters. After about a dozen rounds, Matthew Cruickshank finally just blasted a slapshot past Smith to win it for Team White, meaning Blacker went 65 minutes and a dozen shootout attempts without surrendering a single goal. The most impressive stop came in the shootout when Aaron Spivack tried a spin-o-rama, but was denied by a quick leg. So what was the youngster thinking when Spivack began to turn?
“Just flashbacks to all those NHL videos,” Blacker said. “I stuck the pad out and got really lucky there.”
But that's a move most NHL goalies have trouble with and Spivack executed it perfectly (other than the fact it didn't go in). Blacker prides himself on his lateral movement and it was apparent in the game. At a shade under 5-foot-10, he doesn't have ideal size, but he's still young and is hoping for one last growth spurt. Canada East wasn't concerned, as he ended up making the squad, while another team that's not worried about his size is Western Michigan; he's already committed to the NCAA's Broncos and excited to join in a couple years.
“They have a great track record and one of the best coaching staffs with Andy Murray,” Blacker said. “They have a great track record with schooling too, a lot of players are coming out with great educations and either playing professional or going into the business world. I'm really looking forward to playing for them.”
Currently suiting up for the Ontario Jr. League's Milton Icehawks, Blacker may be back there next season too and was quite content with his Canada East camp.
“Playing with the older guys really motivates you,” he said. “You want to push harder and be better. Learning from them has been a huge part of this experience.”
Another 1997 birthday with a bright future is defenseman Kris Myllari. The 6-foot-2, 185-pounder is already committed to Penn State and proved to be a studious defender on the day, getting the puck out of trouble with his passing ability and keeping attackers covered. While he already has seven assists in 14 games for the Central Canada League's Kanata Stallions, Myllari played more of a stay-at-home role for Team White and the youngster said that was by design.
“I'm a two-way D-man,” he said. “I was probably more defensive here because I was playing against these great guys and if you make mistakes, it's in the back of your net. I was probably a little overcautious, but you gotta prioritize. You don't win games 8-7.”
Though the Ontario League's Kingston Frontenacs own his rights and are putting together a super squad for both this year and next, Myllari was quite excited about committing to Penn State and joining a program he believes fits his style of play. Getting a chance to develop in a famous conference didn't hurt, either.
“It's the Big Ten, nothing gets bigger,” he said. “You're on the big stage and that's key.”
While Myllari didn't make the final cut, that big stage will be waiting for him in the near future.