When life gives you lemons, you make makeshift hockey tournaments. Or so the saying goes.
With the COVID-19 pandemic still at large, Hockey Canada elected to stop the U-17 World Challenge for a second straight year. But instead of preventing the country's top first-year junior prospects from missing out, Hockey Canada started a new event - the Capital City Challenge. Canada once again sent three randomized teams, but also invited its women's national team made up of Olympic hopefuls in an effort to train against high-level competition.
Canada Black ultimately won the tournament off of an overtime goal from Calum Ritchie against Canada Red. It was fitting, since he was one of the standouts at this event, but the final game proved to be a remarkable end to a fun event. Canada Red finished second, while Canada White beat the women's national team in the championship game to finish off the field.
The tournament gave many of the top 2023 and 2024 NHL draft prospects a chance to prove themselves on a big stage, while the women's national team continued to give the coaching staff data as to who they should select for the Olympic team for Beijing in 2022.
Here's a look at 10 of the top performers from Ottawa over the past week:
Zach Benson, F (Black)
Benson finished as the tournament's leading scorer with 12 points, but none of them was as important as his game-tying goal with just 0.4 seconds left in the championship game. He did have a seven-point effort in the final round-robin game that skewed his overall numbers, but, from an overall standpoint, he was one of the most dangerous players throughout. The Winnipeg Ice forward is off to an incredible start with 22 points in 15 games and shouldn't have to wait long to hear his name called at the 2023 NHL draft.
Marie-Philip Poulin, F (NWT)
Well, duh. Poulin is always one of the elite players at any event she plays in. Poulin was the NWT's top scorer with two goals and four points and also had a few moments of making defensemen look completely out of place. Captain Canada will be counted upon again to lead her country at the Olympics and with her play through all these exhibition contests, she's looking ready for the challenge.
Ethan Gauthier, F (White)
Gauthier got a few shoutouts from teammates for his effort as a playmaker, highlighted by eight assists and nine points in five games. The Sherbrooke Phoenix forward had a good start to the season in Sherbrooke, but it seemed like his best skills really shone through with Canada – not unsurprising, since he was the first overall pick in the most recent QMJHL draft. He has a knack for finding his linemates through traffic and has the speed to do some serious damage. He comes from good hockey lineage: his dad, Denis, played over 500 games in the NHL, his brother, Kaylen, plays for Drummondville and his cousin, Julien, currently plays for the New York Rangers.
Calum Ritchie, F (Black)
The golden goal-scorer. Ritchie had an excellent tournament for Canada Black and was rewarded with the game-winning goal in overtime after Benson tied the game up with under a second to go. The Oshawa Generals forward had 19 points in 16 games before leaving for Ottawa, only to finish second with 11 points in five games over the past week. Ritchie was supposed to be a star for a stacked Oakville Rangers team last year, but he instead has focused on making a big case to go early in the 2023 NHL draft - this performance helps.
Matthew Wood, F (Red)
Wood was one of the few players not playing in the CHL before this tournament, with the 16-year-old signed to the University of Connecticut of the NCAA for 2023-24. And, wow, is he impressive. With 26 points in 12 games in his first full BCHL season, Wood is just six points off of the league lead in points despite playing seven fewer games. He carried that strong play to Canada Red, scoring four goals and three assists for seven points in five outings. Wood didn't end up winning the medal he came for, but he's already one of the more fascinating players to watch in the age group.
Andrew Cristall, F (White)
It seemed like anytime Cristall took the puck down the ice, he made something work. He had a breakaway goal to open the tournament and seemed to always buzz around the net in an attempt to create offense. The Kelowna Rockets forward is tremendously skilled – highlighted by a lacrosse goal earlier in the WHL season – and he took his hot run from junior and turned it into a nice six-point output in Ottawa. The small forward is an impressive goal-scorer and will continue to cause damage once he returns to the Rockets.
Brayden Yager, F (Red)
With four goals, Yager was consistently one of his team's most dangerous puck-possessors – but that's no surprise. After recording 18 points in 24 games as an underaged player a year ago in the WHL, Yager has the same number of points in just 18 games with Moose Jaw this season. The quick-skating skilled forward had four goals, including the go-ahead marker with a few minutes left in the final. He and Riley Heidt showed some impressive chemistry at the start of the tournament but was split up to increase scoring opportunities. It worked, but Canada Red ultimately finished with a silver.
Ann-Renee Desbiens, G (NWT)
She didn't leave with a win, but with multiple 40-plus-save performances, Desbiens was the most noticeable goaltender at this event. The 25-year-old goaltender had a perfect record at the recent World Championship en route to gold and looked sharp against tough competition in Ottawa over the past week. Desbiens is ready to show what she can do in Beijing now.
Tanner Molendyk, D (Black)
It's sometimes hard for defensemen to get noticed in showcase events like this where scoring is plentiful. But Molendyk was consistently reliable for Canada Black, Molendyk set up the overtime winner that sent Black to the final and generally had no issue passing the puck to one of the team's top offensive threats. He had five assists in as many games and used his speed to break up scoring chances at the other end effectively. A great showing out of the Saskatoon Blades defender.
Mathieu Cataford, F (White)
Cataford had a solid, yet unspectacular start to his QMJHL campaign before leaving for Ottawa. That's expected, he's a rookie, but his play at the Capital City Challenge was anything but average. Cataford had three goals and seven points for White and generally was one of the hardest-working players on the ice in most outings. He was useful on the power play, he didn't miss many of his high-danger scoring opportunities and he was aggressive when he needed to be. Overall, a lot to like from his week in Ottawa.