The Top Prospects from the Canada Winter Games

With the Canada Winter Games taking place every four years, the event serves as a great showcase for the next crop of young talent ready to play Canadian major junior hockey. It just so happened that this group featured two of the best prospects to come from the country since Connor McDavid, which is no small feat.

The tournament featured 13 teams made up of all the provinces and territories in Canada, with the top 15 and 16 year olds going to battle in Red Deer, Alberta. The two teams that were expected to go all the way, Ontario and Quebec, found themselves battling for gold in the end, with Quebec taking the 4-3 victory for the top prize on February 22nd.

Given that I live in the Greater Toronto Area, I used this tournament as a way of judging the top Ontario-based players against other strong teams, and was impressed with what I saw. It was also the first time I got to watch certain top players from places like Manitoba, Quebec and Alberta, all who had some very talented players among their ranks.

So, I decided to take a look at 20 players that really impressed me over the week-long event in no particular order. Check out my Twitter account at @StevenEllisNHL for insight and videos of other prospects that caught my eye, too.

Zachary L’Heureux, C/LW (Quebec): I can’t say I knew much about the QMJHL prospects in this tournament, but I can say with certainty that L’Heureux was among the best players in the tournament, period. The stats don’t lie: he had two hat-tricks in the opening two games and a goal a minute into the third game against Ontario. Even though he didn’t light up the scoresheet against Ontario, I still believe it was his most well-rounded performance, with the projected top-10 pick at the QMJHL draft throwing a few big hits, backchecking extremely well and, of course, opening the scoring early in the game.

His willingness to pursue loose pucks and try and create offensive through the middle of the ice was noticeable, allowing him to spring others or put himself in a position for a breakaway. I believe he played both centre and left wing in the tournament and was given opportunities on the power play. His speed was very impressive, using the space around him effectively with a quick stride that some of the bigger players couldn’t contend with. In short bursts, he’s almost impossible to catch.

Justin Robidas, C (Quebec): You’ve likely heard of his dad, former NHL all-star and QMJHL defenceman of the year Stéphane, but Justin already looks like one of the more promising players from Quebec for the 2021 NHL draft. Robidas had two goals against Ontario in a game that saw him buzzing all over the ice, perhaps having the best performance out of anyone on the team. Robidas also had three assists against Team Nova Scotia and scored the first goal of the tournament for Quebec against New Brunswick, only to get outshined by L’Heureux early on.

Robidas is a strong three-zone forward that does a fantastic job of backchecking and is often the best player for his team, even when they struggle. When you least expect it, Robidas positions himself in a way to intercept a pass due to his ability to stop and start quickly and his tenacious attitude towards getting the puck on his stick. His acceleration is tremendous and can produce wicked wrist shots at a high rate.

Matt Savoie, C (Alberta): It’s no surprise that Savoie was among the best players in Pool B, and with the Albertan expected to go first overall in the WHL draft (assuming he gets approved for exceptional status), fans and scouts alike got to see what makes him so good. Savoie, Dylan Guenther and Kai Uchacz all had two goals and seven points heading into the semifinals, but it seemed like every time Savoie touched the puck, magic was about to happen.

I don’t like using the word “elite” to describe a prospect, especially someone who is so far from their NHL draft season, but it’s hard to ignore the phrase when describing Savoie. His speed and vision when dealing with the puck is second to none and he scores highlight reel goals on a nightly basis. The release on his shot is deadly and you can throw him on the power play, either on the point or on the wing, and he can find a way to blow a shot past a goalie. Savoie entered the tournament as a hot gun after posting 63 points in 27 games with the Northern Alberta Xtreme Midget Prep squad and he only helped add to the lore that his 14-year-old season. Mark my words, he’ll be a superstar in the NHL in his 2022 draft season.

Shane Wright, C (Ontario): The Savoie vs Wright battle for the 2022 NHL draft is going to go down as one of the best match-ups in the history of the sport. Wright, the star player from the star-studded Don Mills Flyers lineup, outpaced Savoie in the offensive department, scoring six goals and eight points heading into the big match with his Alberta rival.

It is worth noting that, despite Wright applying for exceptional status earlier in the season, he still not officially a 2019 OHL draft prospect on the basis that he hasn’t been approved yet.

In that big match, Wright led the way with a three-point performance, while Savoie only mustered two, even if it’s easily argued that Savoie looked more impressive with the puck. Still, Wright is the type of player that would go No. 1 in most drafts and there are many reasons why.

Wright has so much downright skill that most players a year older can’t keep up. Wright is a strong skater that can’t be pushed around much and is very dominant when in control of the disk in the offensive zone. He seems to have no issue starting a breakout play and doesn’t look for the easy pass that the opponents are expecting, but rather the one that will generate a scoring chance. The puck seems to always find its way to Wright and often touches it more than anyone else when on the power play. He could add a bit more strength to his shot, and he’s not overly aggressive, but his quick hands make up for a lot of that.

You’re going to be hearing a lot about Wright in the future, so it’s best to get started now. While his OHL fate is still unknown, it’s clear that Wright has the pure talent to make the jump full time next season. Given that he was in the top 10 for nearly the entire Canada Games, Wright proved he can compete with older competition and not only be good enough to warrant a spot, but is better than the rest of the competition.

Brandt Clarke, D (Ontario): I kind of feel bad for Clarke, who would be the top prospect for the OHL draft if it wasn’t for a superstar taking the top spot. Clarke is going to be one heck of a two-way defenceman in the NHL some day and he took his ability to dominate with him to Alberta and didn’t disappoint.

Clarke was hard to ignore at any point in the tournament. By far the best offensive defenceman in the tournament, Clarke showed patience with the puck and wasn’t willing to pass the puck just to make a pass. He would often do most of the work to get past opponents while drawing wingers to him, only to set up someone like Brennan Othmann near the side of the net. Clarke is willing to jump into rushes and rarely stays out of position long due to how fast he gets back to his own zone. Simply put, when you watch him, you get the idea that he’s just a really smart passer.

While it was obviously a different tournament, Clarke was the best all-around defenceman at the Whitby Silverstick Tournament in November, showcasing his mobility and power play quarterbacking abilities. Clarke will play top-four minutes in the OHL next year, which is saying something about the skill this kid has.

Brennan Othmann, LW (Ontario): Othmann had 10 points after two games. You would think that would essentially be all you need to know, but I think the tournament acted as somewhat of a tell-tale sign of what his season has shown to be. Nobody will argue that Othmann isn’t a gifted offensive talent, as seen by how strong of a regular season he had with the Flyers.

It can be argued that Clarke was a big catalyst in many of Othmann’s goals, but the fact of the matter was that Othmann was a man on a mission early on in the tournament. But in the game against Quebec, Othmann was almost non-existent. He took a penalty and had a few giveaways while not engaging enough in the play.

But that wasn’t the case throughout the rest of the tournament. With 15 points heading into the finals, Othmann’s ability to put pucks in the net was a clear sign of his talent. And while the likes of Wright and Clarke may have had more consistent tournaments, Othmann was perhaps the most dangerous player around the crease. Othmann had numerous breakaways in the tournament, tallying a few goals along the way, and he seemed like one of the fastest first-stride forwards on any given shift.Othmann is a clear top-15 pick for the draft this year and is perhaps the best left winger available at the moment.

Jacob Holmes, D (Ontario): I haven’t had a chance to see the York-Simcoe Express this year, so I can’t say I knew much about Holmes heading into the tournament. But my-oh-my, I liked what I saw. Holmes seemed to be engaged in every shift he took part in and was a very good passer that battled for every puck he could get. Ontario seemed to rely on him heavily as a two-way defenceman that brought a hard point shot with him and strong decision making when he decided to let go of the disk. Holmes was very hard to take the puck off of and while he wasn’t the fastest skater, he wasn’t caught out of position much throughout the tournament to have to worry about it.

Holmes will enter the draft as quite the underrated prospect. A lot of people seem to think he’ll fall to either the late-second or early-third round, but I believe Holmes has enough potential to be a real steal. On paper, there appeared to be better options than Holmes for Ontario, but given the lack of ETA players on the roster, it’s clear that they made the right choice bringing him.

Joshua Roy, C/LW (Quebec): Considered by many to be the top prospect for the 2019 QMJHL draft, Roy and L’Heureux couldn’t be stopped at any point for Quebec. Roy’s passes are very crisp and his wrist shot was among the quickest of any goal scorer in the tournament. His decision making with the puck (deciding whether to pass or shoot) was outstanding and he did a great job of protecting the puck from bigger opponents. Roy is good at fighting along the boards to win puck battles and is a strong skater, both going forwards and backwards.

In terms of 2021 NHL draft prospects, Roy is among the most dangerous offensive threats, entering the tournament in Alberta with 88 points in 42 games with the Lévis Chevaliers. Roy’s game is well-rounded enough and his offensive output is at a superb enough level that it’s easy to expect that he’ll be a top-five pick at the 2021 NHL draft.

Benjamin Gaudreau, G (Ontario): I can’t wait to watch Gaudreau at the OHL Cup in March, especially with how good he has played all season long. The top goalie prospect for the OHL draft, Gaudreau was stellar throughout the tournament, outside of a bad start to Quebec in the first meeting between the two teams. For the most part, Gaudreau did a good job of using his big frame to square up to chances and never really gave up on plays.

Instead of playing minor midget for a second year, Gaudreau has spent the year playing major midget with the North Bay Trappers, which has exposed him to older competition. He hasn’t had an issue with that this year and his maturity was evident in Alberta after allowing a few tough goals. Gaudreau has good athleticism to allow him to make up for mistakes when he over-commits to a play and his rebound control, for the most part, is strong. He has a great base to build around in the coming years and should be an OHL starter before you know it.

Jack Campbell, C (PEI): Teams participating in Pool C of the tournament didn’t get much attention as the quality of the teams were much lower than the likes of Ontario, Quebec, B.C., Alberta, etc. But after the round-robin portion of the tournament, Campbell emerged as the tournament’s top scorer, posting three goals and eight assists for 11 points in his first six games before finishing as the tournament leader with 17 points. And while it is worth noting that he played double the games and weaker competition than the rest of the top five in scoring, Campbell was consistently one of the most noticeable players on the ice on every shift. The PEI bantam AAA MVP from 2018 has a good release on his wrist shot but he really shined when setting up Cameron MacLean and Connor Keough.

Zach Dean, C (Newfoundland): While Dean plays with the Toronto Nationals of the GTHL, he is from Newfoundland, meaning that he will be a product of a QMJHL team come spring time. Dean has a lot of potential to excel in major junior over the next few years and showed that he can be very creative when dishing out the puck, making him perhaps the most noticeable playmaker in Pool C. In fact, he looked out of place, with Dean showcasing the skill level you would expect from someone on Ontario or Quebec. Dean had eight assists and nine points in the preliminary round, tying Campbell for the lead in the passing category.

BURLINGTON, ONT. — Toronto Nationals forward Zachary Dean (#14) slides into Mississauga Senators goaltender James Norton (#32) during GTHL minor midget action between the Mississauga Senators and the Toronto Nationals at Iceland Mississauga on December 6, 2018. (Photo from Steven Ellis/World Hockey Magazine)

Dean is an excellent skater who won a lot of battles due to his quick stride and could deke himself out of a matchup in the middle of the ice. Dean is versatile in the fact that he isn’t just a superb passer, but he can get physical to win battles when his stick work isn’t enough. Dean looks like a potential top-five pick for the QMJHL draft and his strong 200-foot game will allow him to excel in major junior.

Trevor Wong, F (British Columbia): Wong wasn’t as successful as Logan Stankoven in the scoring department for B.C., but he was surely one of the most noticeable players for a team that went from potentially playing for a medal to battling for seventh place due to a third-period collapse to Alberta on the final day of the round robin.

Wong, who was selected in the first round of the WHL draft by Kelowna last season, is the reigning CSS bantam MVP after leading St. George’s School to the title last year with 64 goals, 77 assists and 141 points in 30 games. Wong’s biggest strength is the accuracy of his passes, which seem to never miss their target, but his wrist shot has just enough velocity to be deadly often. His motor seems to keep going all game and has a tendency to sneak up on his opponents to intercept the puck. Wong will be a solid major junior player next year and while his time with B.C. may not have gone fully to plan, he was definetly a solid contributor to a team that needed as much offensive help as they could get.

Samuel Schofield, C (Northwest Territories): Schofield, a 2002-born centre from the Northwest Territories, seems good enough to join the Swift Current Broncos next season, but could his size be his downfall? With six goals and 12 points, Schofield was among the top scorers at the end of the tournament after generating a lot of the team’s offence. Despite standing at just 5’6, Schofield proved to be a dominant player that can fly around the competition like Lewis Hamilton does in F1 and he has some really good hands that allowed him to tally some goals. Schofield has a lot of pure talent, but he can be pushed around a bit. Still, a very impressive performance out of Schofield.

Nolan Allan, D (Saskatchewan): Allan, a Prince Albert Raiders prospect, was the most impressive player for me on Saskatchewan who I, admittedly, didn’t follow a whole lot after their first few games. Allan was one of the better defencemen for the Western Canada Selects at the World Selects Invitational last spring and was the right choice for the Raiders at #3, with the current Saskatoon Blazers midget player expected to make the jump to a full-time WHL role next year after seven games with the team this season.

Allan had four goals for Saskatchewan and was always playing against the top match-ups each game without slowing down. With very little time off for teams in the tournament, Allan had no issue playing big minutes and throwing his body in front of pucks, and he obviously had a knack for finding the net. Allan wasn’t the most physical player, but there aren’t many downsides to his play.

Carson Lambos, D (Manitoba): Manitoba doesn’t really produce many Grade A prospects, but Lambos is far from a typical young defenceman. Lambos seems to be among the best defencemen at every tournament he plays at and has quite the motor to buzz around all game long. The Manitoba team captain has already played in five games with the Kootenay Ice after the team selected him second overall and was the clear choice for the CSSBHL top defenceman award last spring, and while his attitude can get in the way at points, he’s got too much talent to be overlooked.

Lambos didn’t produce much offence with just four points to his credit, but he had many chances from the point and often outpaced his own teammates when rushing the puck due to his outstanding top-end speed. Lambos has an edge to his game that can throw off opponents, yet is rather strong positionally and recovers nicely to make a pass after a big hit. WHL teams will have a tough time adjusting to his play next year.

Max Joy, D (Nunavut): Face it: there may not be a better name in hockey than Max Joy. But on the ice, there’s a lot to like from him. Obviously, Nunavut was heavily outmatched throughout the entire tournament, but Joy was a key member of the blue line and didn’t look out of place against faster competition. The Iqaluit native has had a good year with the Notre Dame Argos Midget AAA team this year. Joy was counted on to play important moments for his province, who fielded a team in the tournament for the first time ever. Joy’s best bet may be to aim for a U SPORTS deal in the future, but for now, the small, speedy defenceman will continue his strong play in Saskatchewan.

Josie Cote, RW (Nunavut): Nobody stood out for Nunavut like Cote did, a 16-year-old with the Ontario Hockey Academy in Ottawa. Cote had four goals and five points for Nunavut, including two in the team’s first ever victory at the tournament against Yukon and the first two of the game in a 7-2 loss to Newfoundland later that same day. Cote played some significant time on the power play and was often placed near the blue line to fire one-timers when given the opportunitiy. His speed was impressive for Nunvaut and despite being a smaller forward, Cote wasn’t afraid to get physical.

Peter Reynolds, C (New Brunswick): When Ontario played New Brunswick at the start of the tournament, Reynolds seemed to be one of the only players who could do anything with the puck for his team. That was a rather consistent trend throughout the tournament, but given that he’s one of the top Atlantic prospects for the QMJHL draft, that’s understandable. The Boston College commit has spent the past few years playing in the United States and is the top scorer on Shattuck St. Mary’s U16 team with 6 points in 44 games this year, so it will be interesting to see if he’s willing to break off the commitment if chosen early in the coming months.

Reynolds has impressive offensive upside and doesn’t have issues with skating himself out of trouble with the puck. While his defensive play leaves a bit to be desired, Reynolds did a good job of displaying his speed against stronger teams, especially against Ontario after recording four points in a 10-4 loss. The team lacked overall depth, but Reynolds led the way for New Brunswick with seven points,

Cameron MacLean, F (PEI): While MacLean obviously didn’t get as much fanfare as the other two big 2004-born forwards, MacLean held up his own quite well with PEI and has entered the discussion as a prospect to watch out for heading into the 2020 QMJHL draft. With seven goals and 10 points, MacLean hovered around the top 10 in scoring all tournament long and was dangerous for PEI every time he was given the chance to take the puck up the ice. MacLean spent a lot of time roaming around the crease and even threw a couple of solid hits along the way, too. MacLean still has a lot to learn and develop, and given his age, that’s not a concern. Some of the areas that he didn’t really excel in were his backwards skating and his consistency from shift to shift, but the raw tools are there.

Jacob Squires, D (PEI): For a defenceman with good size, Squires is an impressive skater that isn’t afraid to draw a check if it helps out his team. Smart with and without the puck, Squires held his own for PEI, even when his team was busy dealing with shots in their own zone, which happened often. Squires finished with three goals and six points for his province, who would go on to finish ninth when the final seedings were determined. I liked how willing Squires was to take the puck from his own zone down the ice to attempt to generate offence and he was the right choice to man the back end on the power play. Squires will likely go somewhere between 70th and 85th in the QMJHL draft, and while he is far from a sure thing at this point, he’s a project player worth taking a chance on.

Side note: I have some cool career news to share later this week.

Follow me on Twitter, @StevenEllisNHL.

Dreaming of A Canadian National Development Team

Note: a version of this article was originally found in the June edition of the World Hockey Magazine.

Why would Team Canada create a development team? They care too much about the CHL, and I can’t see them wanting to copy an idea from USA Hockey, even if it does seem to work for them.

But with 60 CHL teams, and players essentially limited to their local areas, (Toronto-born kids don’t go to the WHL unless they’ve been passed over or placed on waivers, for example). Somehow, there never seems to be enough roster spots for talented players, and kids will dart to Junior A in hopes of getting a chance at playing in the NCAA.

Canada has something that makes them special: an abundance of talented hockey players. They could afford to take the cream of the crop and put them on a team together and take on some of the nation’s best Junior A clubs. Heck, even an exhibition game or two against an OHL team would be exciting… maybe.

Imagine what Quinton Byfield could have done in the OJHL with the Newmarket Hurricanes, especially after scoring at nearly three points-per-game in the GTHL, as well as grabbing two points in his lone OJHL contest. Could he have become an even more explosive player had he played older competition a year earlier? Perhaps.

So, here’s the idea: choose the best 15-year-old minor midget players from across Canada, place them on one team that plays in one league (the BCHL, for instance) with older competition, but not players that will physically dominate them. Give the players more chances to develop against older, faster and stronger competition, and give them the tools to be dominant players heading into their respective CHL drafts (with the exception of the WHL players, but this could benefit them significantly).

Here’s something I’d change: make it start at the U15 level. There is always questions about who, if any, should be considered for CHL exceptional status, and 15 year olds Matthew Savoie from Alberta and Shane Wright are the two latest players to apply for it. At this point, it looks very likely that both will earn the honour of carrying the status next fall.

Then, they could either keep the program together and have an exceptional Under-17 World Hockey Challenge team, or send players to their draft teams and let them show what they can do. Heck, enter them in a U16 tournament overseas. Canada doesn’t have a U16 team or a U17 squad, so this could act as an official entry into tournaments for those age groups.

BURLINGTON, ONT. — Oakville Rangers goaltender Noah Pak (#31), Burlington Eagles forward Ethan Micheli (#7) and Oakville Rangers #17 watch a shot during SCTA minor midget action between the Oakville Rangers and Burlington Eagles at Appleby Arena on November 26, 2018. (Photo from Steven Ellis/World Hockey Magazine)

What’s one of the benefits? In some cases, minor midget and midget teams will have openings to allow other players a chance to prove themselves and potentially earn their way to the next level in a way that may have not been possible before.

The downsides are understandable. There’s likely no chance for the players to dominate and take over, something the best players typically get to.

But if you take them out of the equation and have them play against better competition, not only will they be better prepared for major junior, but other players could get opportunities to be better players because some of the major stars wouldn’t be in the system anymore.

Am I being crazy for thinking this would be a viable option? Am I putting too much credence on putting a team together for tournaments and other events? My preference would be to have these players play together until the end of hte U18 World Championships, but that’s also not easy.  

In fact, I’m not sure it would be something that would be as useful at the U18 level. But what if Canada started playing at U16 tournaments? What if they sent this team to showcase events across North America? What if they got to play a super-schedule that gave these players a chance to prove themselves against older competition on a nightly basis before making the jump to major junior?

There are many logistical issues with this idea, and I get it. Which CJHL league would you align with? Would they play in different leagues at different times? Would it make sense to have one team per major junior area (Team Ontario, Team West, Team East)? It’s safe to assume Ontario would have a large portion of the roster if they chose to have just one team, which wouldn’t make a whole lot of sense. Maybe the format of Canada Winter Games that will be taking place soon, with one team per area with the big Olympic-style event acting as the championship, is the way to go for a season-long format that’s fully backed by Hockey Canada.

I truly wouldn’t want to be in charge of whittling down the talent to make just one roster.

I’ve talked to scouts about this, and I’ve had varied reactions. Some believe it would be an interesting idea and something they’d support. Others think it could potentially hurt some star players that would get more ice time acting as a star player for their team. But even then, those same people said they wouldn’t mind Hockey Canada trying it out for a season and seeing how it goes.

If it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t work out. If it does, Canada could have an interesting new pathway for the next generation of superstars that doesn’t involve getting 100 points against a bunch of kids who don’t have a future in the sport (many will, of course). The talent pool is huge, and while it could be seen as unfair to give special treatment to some kids, especially if there’s a financial aspect to it. But imagine keeping this team together for a couple years like the Americans and having them be as good, if not better, in international events, featuring many important scouting showcases.

Call me crazy, but I’d love to see it. I have no scientific proof that this would work because there’s never been something like this on this big of a scale at such a young age. But it’s something that could have good results for some of these players, and we’d get rid of the exceptional status rule altogether.

Best 15-16 year olds in the country. One team, playing Junior A against older, stronger, faster competition.

Worth the try? I think so.

The Importance of Growing the Women’s Game

Jed Leicester for YIS/IOC

I recently engaged in a conversation on Twitter about women’s hockey where one user asked why people would watch a “less entertaining” version of the sport. A prominent women’s hockey contributor then said that what makes a level of hockey interesting is up to interpretation, but that many people don’t give it a chance due to women’s hockey involving women.

Someone else then brought up the argument that the NWHL suffers the same issue that the ECHL does in the way that “the product sucks” and that a ” shitty product produces shitty demand”.

Sure, compared to the NHL, most levels of hockey will feel vastly inferior. That’s fine.

There is definitely a lot of people that won’t watch women’s hockey because of gender, but it is hard to deny the skill difference. Overall, a lot of people will agree with that, especially when you see Canada’s women’s team losing to midget teams in Alberta. But this can be attributed to physical difference more than anything, and that’s understandable. That doesn’t take away from the fact that professional women’s hockey players are damn good.

So, let’s look at a tournament that just recently took place among the top prospects in the world. A ton of people will watch the World Juniors, but are those 11-2 games between Slovakia and Kazakhstan really the gripping action that people get excited for? Are the World Juniors really that much better than the U20 Four Nations tournaments or the World Under-18 Hockey Championships that proceeds it?

It’s hard to judge what the public thinks because a large majority of hockey fans don’t even know those tournaments exist. I absolutely love the World Juniors, but I’d argue that, in most years, that the Spengler Cup is a better tournament. But, of course, people ignore it because of the ads on the jerseys or the fact that it’s a bunch of former NHLers instead of legitimate stars, I think that if they got past that, they’d see just how incredible of a tournament it is each year.

I don’t subscribe to the belief that anything below the NHL isn’t worth watching, something that seems to appear during the Spengler Cup or World Hockey Championships. Hockey isn’t even my favourite sport, but I will watch hockey at nearly any level. In person, I’ve covered the NHL, AHL, ECHL, CWHL, World Juniors, World Cup of Hockey, OHL, OJHL, WHL, OUA, GTHL, SCTA, ETA, Alliance, PWHL and probably a few more levels I’ve completely forgotten about. Some of my favourite hockey have come from arguably the lowest level out of all: the minor midget level, looking at players preparing for the OHL draft.

Why? Because the hockey is competitive and the kids have a lot on the line. Their whole career can be dictated about what they do when they’re 15 (well, they can mess things up at any age, but the OHL draft season is some of the most pressure a player can face). There’s a big focus on skill and physicality typically isn’t much of a talking point.

One commenter mentioned that women’s hockey suffers from the fact that it’s not as physical as other levels of hockey. That is true, and while there have been little scuffles between Canada and USA, it’s nothing compared to the amount of physicality seen at an AHL or ECHL game. But if you really go to a hockey game to see someone get concussed, do you truly care about hockey? I like hitting in the game and I’m OK with fighting, but they’re just part of the game. I don’t follow a level of hockey for the physical side of it, just like I don’t go to a game to see how good a team is at making shorthanded line changes. It’s just another aspect of the game.

Also, the fact that women’s hockey players wear cages (which helps teams save money on insurance, by the way) makes them look smart, in my opinion.

If physicality is important to you, fine. But then you’re missing out on truly skilled hockey. Why is it that some of the best hockey players rarely engage in physical bouts? Maybe, just maybe, getting pucks on net results in more scoring chances. The top NHL stars aren’t typically the ones leading in the hits category, are they?

And that’s why women’s hockey is so pure.

But pure hockey isn’t enough to get people to keep going to your games. The truth is that not enough people support women’s hockey at this point in time. It’s no question that the sport has grown exponentially over the past decade, especially with two professional leagues that continue to rise in North America and have earned support from NHL teams and major media outlets.

But the fact of the matter is that there is a lot of room to grow.

My whole thing about women’s hockey is that there is a catch 22 when it comes to growth. For it to thrive, it needs more teams actively being competitive. But how do you convince young girls from Russia, Germany, China and other areas to take part if two teams dominate?

But on the flipside, you can’t have Canada and the United States stay stagnant because that doesn’t grow the game, either. If you’re at a lopsided hockey game, would you rather see a team score a crazy amount of goals or just slow down and play defensively the rest of the way? That’s not any better. The game doesn’t need to stop growing in one area just to let others catch up.

So it’s tough. Dominance isn’t good, but staying still isn’t, either.

But how do you grow the game globally? That’s the issue. There needs to be more money flowing to programs in Russia, Switzerland, Norway, Japan, wherever. But having the necessary funding in the first place is tough, especially if there isn’t a lot to be made (this goes for men’s and women’s hockey programs). I’ve talked to some smaller hockey programs who have said they would love to spend more money to grow their women’s hockey programs but they barely have enough to fund their men’s teams that typically have larger player counts. And in a lot of cases, it’s simply just that: there are more men in most countries that want to play hockey than women.

The women’s game is more global than ever, especially with teams like India and Lebanon investing in programs. It will take time to grow those teams, but that’s a very promising situation. There needs to be money involved in the growth, and to make money, you need people to watch and support the teams.

How do you do that? You need to get the sport out in front of as many people as possible. The best way to do that? Get games televised at a more consistent level. But that’s also the problem.

I watch a ton of endurance sportscar racing — I’m talking races like the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the 24 Hours of Daytona, 12 Hours of Bathurst and even some of the more obscure ones, like the 24 Hours of Dubai and 25 Hours of Thunderhill. Every time, there will be people that will ask why bigger networks aren’t covering it or why the networks that are showing the races are just moving the races among their different channels.

The simple fact of the matter is that TV networks like money, obviously. But there needs to be a solid enough of a market to sell the product to in order for them to consider doing it.

Let’s be real with ourselves: if we’re looking at Canada only, the country is really fickle when it comes to supporting teams outside the NHL, especially in the Greater Toronto Area where the market is quite saturated. There’s a reason why, outside of the NHL, games involving other leagues, whether it be junior, minor pro, etc., is rare to find on TV. Heck, the World Juniors are very popular in North America, yet other great events, like the Under-18’s and World Championships, are ignored by a large majority of fans.

So, if you’re not the NHL, fighting for television space is a tough task, no matter what league you’re from. Women’s hockey may have it even harder due to the pre-conceived notions that the sport isn’t as good as the men’s side. Again, that’s all due to personal opinion, but it’s something that will take a lot of work to get people to change their opinions.

I know a ton of people would have loved to see the Under-18 Women’s Hockey Championships aired on television, even if just for a game or two. But with the tournament being in Japan, the games were in the middle of the night, which makes airing the tournament in North America a bit of a challenge. Had the men’s World Championship played their games in the middle of the night in Canada or the United States, good luck attracting any form of a viable fanbase to support it (let me be clear: this would be an issue for any international tournament, not just a junior women’s event). I’m glad the games were at least streamed online for free in high quality, with replays available for free immediately after the game without any rights holders taking them down after.

And there are definetly more people gravitating towards watching women’s hockey on a more consistent basis. Nearby me, the Toronto Furies (albeit in a terrible location for fans to get to), the Markham Thunder and the junior-level PWHL all are rather close to me. Part of how you grow the game at these levels is streaming games online, and while the CWHL does that, I think the promotion of the live coverage is quite poor by the league and teams involved. I know a few of the production teams that stream the games and I still can’t tell you off hand where the games are available, and I watch a TON of hockey (including cell phone streams of games in Mexico and Argentina).

The fact that the games are streamed is perfect, and while I know that teams would rather fill up the stands, you need to get the fans excited at home first. That’s the same thing about junior hockey: imagine how many more people would be exposed to leagues like the OJHL and BCHL if it didn’t cost $250 for a streaming package with below-average production in many rinks and inadequate quality control?

I think the inclusion of some of the top women’s hockey players at the NHL All-Star Game was huge, because a large portion of fans following the event likely haven’t watched the sport since the Olympics (and even then, the gold-medal game was quite late at night). That’s the type of exposure that needs to happen on a more regular basis. I can’t speak to how much the NHL has offered to help the NWHL or CWHL, but regardless, showing what some talented players are capable of is fantastic for future growth and didn’t hurt the NHL in any way. So, truly, it was a win-win.

I think having players such as Kendall Coyne Schofield and Brianna Decker take centre stage during an important time for the NHL is absolutely huge for women’s hockey. Not only did they show that they were fantastic hockey talents, they showcased to a mainstream hockey audience that there are some quality women’s hockey players not named Natalie Decker or Hilary Knight. Not that that would be a surprise to those who follow the sport year-round, but the more players that can take centre stage, the better.

I cover junior hockey. I know how great the hockey can be. Same goes for the World Hockey Championships and men’s level international hockey. There’s a reason I don’t watch the NHL solely: there’s some incredible hockey all around the world. But convincing people to watch something else is a battle I’ve given up on trying to fight.

I feel for the women’s hockey fans and writers who continue to cover the sport with enthusiasm, yet often see their sport seen as a novelty by the masses. It’s not fair. Good hockey is good hockey. I’ll watch a bantam hockey game just because the action can be fantastic. You don’t need the best of the best at both ends of the ice to have a fun, exciting hockey game.

There are some people doing some great work to grow the game. Melissa Burgess, for example, created the Women’s Hockey Media Association, a group I’m pleased to be a member of, that is working to build media standards when it comes to leagues such as the CWHL and NWHL. The treatment of the CWHL, where media weren’t allowed in the media box for the CWHL All-Star Game and were left in the dark on a variety of other issues, as a black eye for a league that needs more exposure, not less. Other writers I enjoy following include Leighann Strollo, Nathaniel A. Oliver, Kirsten Whelan and Hannah Bevis, among others.

To keep the game moving, we need to keep talking about women’s hockey, and not in a human interest kind of way. Those stories are great, but that shouldn’t be everything you read about the sport. Talk about the players as if they’re hockey players and not a charity case, because they are truly hockey players.

This post isn’t to say you’re stupid if you don’t follow women’s hockey, and it isn’t even to tell you to watch it, either. It’s to point out that growing the game is a tough task, but we’re on the right path to future growth. The first women’s hockey tournament at the Olympics took place just over 20 years ago, and since then, there’s been very impressive growth.

I don’t think women’s hockey fans are looking for leagues like the CWHL or NWHL to get as much attention or focus as the NHL. I don’t think any league will ever come close to that. But what they do want is respect and for fans to take it seriously, because the players sure as hell do.

A future where young girls can see themselves making a career out of hockey, or at least achieving a high level of success in order to further inspire other young kids to participate, is a future we should all be looking to help build.