Hockey scouts will be out en masse for the World Under-17 Challenge that begins next Monday on Vancouver Island.
They will be watching players like Regina Pats forward Jordan Weal, hot Quebec goaltender Louis Boileau-Dominique of the Moncton Wildcats and Ontario sniper Ryan Spooner of the Peterborough Petes, who are unfamiliar names even to many scouts right now, but may not be for long.
``This is the first time I look at them and see who jumps out,'' said Al Murray, head scout for Hockey Canada. ``It's the first step toward getting in the Program of Excellence.
``It's the first time they go into an international competition and have to jell together into a team in a short time. A lot of what happens here will determine who gets onto the under-18 team in the summer.''
The 10-team tournament has five regional squads from Canada _ the Atlantic, which includes the four Maritime provinces, Quebec, Ontario, the West (Manitoba and Saskatchewan), and the Pacific (Alberta and British Columbia).
There are also teams from Russia, Finland, the United States, Slovakia and Germany.
Each team will play an exhibition game Sunday, with the main tournament starting Monday.
Games will be played in Nanaimo, Campbell River, Cowichan, Courtenay, Port Alberni and Oceanside, with the semifinals in Port Alberni and Nanaimo and the final on Jan. 4 in Port Alberni.
Ontario won for the sixth time last year when the event was held in London, Ont., beating the U.S. in the final while the West finished third.
Quebec won the first tournament in 1986 and also won in 1994 and 2006. The West took it in 2005. The Pacific has never won, but finished second four straight years from 2001 to 2005, while the Atlantic's best showing was third in 2005.
The teams are selected by their provincial hockey associations. The players mainly come from major junior or midget triple-A leagues and nearly all were born in 1992.
Murray, a former scout for the Los Angeles Kings, said all 30 NHL clubs will likely have one or two scouts at the tournament to watch what he called ``the best players in the world in their age group.''
``With five Canadian teams, I get to evaluate 110 Canadian players.''
What he looks for most from players is hockey sense, competitiveness and speed of execution.
``Those are the traits you look at,'' he said. ``They all have the skating and skills or else they wouldn't be here.''
The players are two or three years away from the NHL draft.
Some have already begun to make their mark in junior hockey.
Weal, a North Vancouver native who will play for the Pacific, is 16th in Western Hockey League scoring with nine goals and 32 assists in 27 games for the Pats this season, while Brett Connolly of the Prince George Cougars has 16 goals and 18 assists.
For the West, goaltender Calvin Pickard of Winnipeg is having a strong season with the Seattle Thunderbirds with a 10-9-1 record and a 2.94 goals-against average.
Boileau-Dominique of Laval, Que., is Quebec's top rookie goalie, with a 2.28 average and a .927 save percentage in 34 games for the Wildcats. Forward Guillaume Asselin has 11 goals for the Junior de Montreal.
Spooner, an Ottawa native, has 16 goals and 16 assists for the Petes while Tyler Toffoli, a Scarborough, Ont., native with the Ottawa 67s, has 10 goals and 17 assists.
Brandon Hynes of Norris Point, N.L., is fourth in rookie scoring in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League with 17 goals for the Victoriaville Tigres and Ben Duffy of Lower Sackville, N.S., is fifth with 12 goals for the PEI Rockets.
Among the international squads, Slovakia's team includes David Bondra, the son of former NHL star Peter Bondra who plays for a junior team in Washington, D.C. The U.S. team comes entirely from their national team development program.
The teams are split into two groups for round robin play, with the top two from each going to the semi-finals.
Group A has the Atlantic, Germany, Ontario, the Pacific and Russia; while Group B has Finland, Quebec, Slovakia, the U.S. and the West.