Is Canada's junior-hockey development model broken?

VICTORIA ROYALS 3
RED DEER REBELS 2 (SO)

Canadian major-junior hockey teams, including the Victoria Royals and Red Deer Rebels in Alberta, faced off as usual Saturday night in towns across the country.

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But it was the United States, with a roster of NCAA collegiate players, and Finland, with a roster of young pros, which went from pool play at Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre in Victoria to play in the final at Rogers Arena in Vancouver of the 2019 IIHF world junior championship.

Major-junior provided every player except one to the Canadian team, which was eliminated in the quarter-finals, leaving people to wonder if the model is broken.

“When Canada loses, people start asking that question,” said Royals GM Cameron Hope.

“When Canada wins, they don’t.”

But the fact is the American and European junior players consistently play against older players, which can’t help but accelerate their development. Canadian 19-year-old juniors, meanwhile, are going up against 16 and 17 year olds. It certainly opened a lot of eyes when the journeymen but older U Sports Canadian university all-stars, all graduated major-juniors, easily dominated the future NHLers on Canada’s junior team in the pre-world championship exhibitions played at the Q Centre in Colwood.

Defenceman Quinn Hughes from the University of Michigan Wolverines, the Vancouver Canucks first-round draft pick in 2018 and seventh player selected overall, brought up just that sort of point in the media scrum that surrounded him at the Memorial Centre following the U.S. team’s quarter-final victory in the world juniors over a physical Czech team on Blanshard.

“The guys in college are much bigger,” Hughes said, citing conference rival Western Michigan, and quipping “half the team is about 25.”

Meanwhile, European hockey players such as Canucks rookie sensation Elias Pettersson come out of a system in which, much like European soccer, top 18 and 19 year olds are thrust into the pro ranks.

“I’ve talked to [Hockey Canada CEO] Tom Renney; and Hockey Canada is always evaluating ways of tweaking our own development system,” countered Hope.

“The European, American and Canadian [hockey] systems are slightly different but they are all producing high-quality players. There is such parity now.”

ICE CHIPS: Royals fans, meanwhile, normally don’t cheer against one of their own players. But many Island hockey fans were no doubt happy to see Kazakhstan, the underdog darlings of Pool B based at the Memorial Centre, defeat Denmark in the relegation round and remain in the top group for next year’s IIHF world junior tournament in the Czech Republic.

Denmark, with Royals forward Phillip Schultz, was relegated to the Tier 1 world tournament next year and will be replaced in the elite group by this year’s Tier 1 tournament champion Germany.

ON THE ICE: The Royals defeated the Rebels 3-2 in a shootout in Western Hockey League action Saturday in Red Deer.

The Royals (20-15-1), who had to clear out of the Memorial Centre to make way for the 2019 IIHF world junior championship, were 4-2 in their six-game road swing through the Central Division. Victoria returns to Blanshard to play the Kamloops Blazers in a B.C. Division match-up on Wednesday night.

cdheensaw@timescolonist.com

© Copyright Westman Journal

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