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.