SPORTS

No shortage of future NHLers at 2012 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge

12/28/2011 11:05 EST | Updated 02/27/2012 05:12 EST
WINDSOR, Ont. - There will be no shortage of NHL prospects to watch when the 2012 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge begins Thursday.

The week-long event will showcase many of the top players in the world born in 1995 or later and includes five regional Canadian teams. The squads from Atlantic Canada, Quebec, Ontario, the Pacific and the West will be joined by entries from the Czech Republic, Germany, Russia, Sweden and United States.

Although none of the players participating will are eligible for the NHL draft until at least 2013 or 2014, the event promises to showcase many future stars.

"Most NHL teams will have two scouts there, and some will have their general managers attend too," said Jim Nill, vice-president and assistant general manager of the Detroit Red Wings. "It's never too early to start a file and obtain information on a player.

"We also get to watch European players play on North American ice, perhaps for the first time, and see how they adapt to the smaller ice rink and more physical play. Scouting junior hockey players is not an exact science, so you need to compile as much information as possible on players."

Established in 1986 as the Quebec Esso Cup, over 1,100 NHL draft picks have played in the tournament, including nine of the last 11 first-overall selections: Ilya Kovalchuk, 2001; Rick Nash, 2002; Marc-Andre Fleury, 2003; Alexander Ovechkin, 2004; Erik Johnson, 2006; Patrick Kane, 2007; John Tavares, 2009; Taylor Hall, 2010; Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, 2011.

There promises to be an abundance of NHL-bound talent on display this year as well.

Perhaps the top prospect is Team Atlantic's Nathan MacKinnon of the Halifax Mooseheads. The right-winger was the first player selected in the 2011 QMJHL Bantam Draft and has already drawn comparisons to Sidney Crosby. He is widely seen as a potential top pick in the 2013 NHL draft.

"MacKinnon is the real deal," Nill said. "If he was eligible for the 2012 draft, he would easily be a top-10 pick. He is that good right now."

Another player who will command attention is Team Ontario's Aaron Ekblad. Already an imposing six-foot-three, 200-pound defenceman with the Ontario Hockey League's Barrie Colts, Ekblad became just the second-ever player (after Tavares) to be granted "exceptional player" status so he could play in the OHL at age 15. However, he won't be eligible until the 2015 NHL Draft.

The tournament will be based out of the WFCU Centre, home of the OHL's Windsor Spitfires, but will also include preliminary round games in the neighbouring towns of LaSalle and Tecumseh.

A total of 75 players from the Canadian Hockey League are represented on Canada's five regional teams including the host Team Ontario with 22 OHL players, Team Pacific with 22 Western Hockey League players (representing Alberta, B.C., the Northwest Territories and the Yukon), Team West with 12 WHL players (representing Manitoba, Nunavut and Saskatchewan), Team Quebec with 11 Quebec Major Junior Hockey League players, and Team Atlantic with eight QMJHL players (representing New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland and Labrador).

In addition to MacKinnon, other top-rated prospects at the tournament, as rated by International Scouting Services, are the Czech Republic's Jan Kostalek, Germany's Frederick Tiffels, Team Ontario's Max Domi (London Knights), Team Pacific's Sam Reinhart (Kootenay Ice ), Team Quebec's Anthony Duclair (Quebec Remparts), Russia's Ivan Barbashev, Team Sweden's Andre Burakovsky, the U.S.'s Hudson Fasching (US National Development Program) and Team West's Alex Forsberg (Prince George Cougars).

In the big picture, CHL teams benefit from having their players participate in the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge every year.

"It's always been a positive experience for our players and our team," said Blaine Smith, president and general manager of the OHL's Sudbury Wolves. "We have had players return to our lineup with a lot more confidence since they were playing in a lot more game situations and were getting more ice time in the tournament than they were with us before they left.

"We continue to see this tournament as a win-win situation for everyone involved," added Smith, whose team sent Matthew Campagna and Brody Silk to Team Ontario last year and has forward Nick Baptiste on the same squad this time around.

The tournament also gives CHL teams an opportunity to recruit American and European players who will be eligible for the upcoming CHL Import Draft.

Team Ontario is the defending champion, having won the gold medal in 2011 for the third time in four years. The U.S. defeated Team Ontario for the gold in 2010.

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