The National Junior Team Development Camp wrapped up four days in Whistler with a standing ovation on Saturday following the second of two intense intrasquad games.
The development camp featured 44 of the top junior players from across Canada, a group that will be whittled down to 36 players for a second training camp in mid-December. A second round of cuts will reduce the team to a maximum of 25 players for the IIHF Junior World Championships being held in Vancouver from Dec. 26 to Jan. 3.
With only one returning player from last years gold medal team the junior squads roster is wide open, but with 18 first round draft picks there was no shortage of talent on the ice. In the intrasquad games, the players held nothing back in an effort to make an impression on the coaches.
Meadow Park manager Keith Tindle estimates that the crowds were between 500 and 600 for the intrasquad games with standing room only around the boards. Its the biggest event the arena has held since the 1996 World Cup team used Meadow Park for their training camp.
"It was really spectacular," said Tindle. "The intrasquad games on Friday and Saturday night were just hockey the way it should be played. The skill was high, because obviously these are the best kids in Canada, but the effort the players were putting into it was amazing. People were on the edge of their seats for the whole game the people who had seats that is, because it was standing room only."
Although Meadow Park is a small venue, it managed to meet the demands of the camp says Tindle. With medical rooms and equipment rooms the group used all four changing areas. "That inconvenienced some of our regular users, so we have to thank them for their patience. These guys are such a big group and they have so much equipment, they used about every square inch of space that was available, but they were happy and we managed to accommodate everything and everyone," said Tindle.
The condition of the ice was not perfect but as good as could be expected with temperatures over 30 degrees for each day of the camp, added Tindle.
Admission was free for all camp events, although community groups used the event for fundraising. Whistler Community Services and the Food Bank accepted donations at the door, while the Whistler Minor Hockey Association ran 50-50 draws and held a raffle.
The biggest benefit, says Tindle, is inspiring young hockey players to pursue their dreams.
"Every day the kids were there with their hats and magazines getting autographs, and the players were great," said Tindle. "Now we have kids who are saying they cant wait for hockey season to get underway again. (The junior players) were still pretty young themselves, so our young players could really relate to them."
While the games were clean for the most part, the players held nothing back in their body checking or pursuit of the puck with only a handful of games to show off their skills and commitment to head coach Brent Sutter. Coming into the camp Sutter said he was looking for team players that he thinks can handle an intense six-game tournament in the middle of their own busy seasons.
Skills are important, but Sutter, who owns, manages and coaches the Red Deer Rebels of the WHL, is also looking for players that can play Canadas trademark style of hockey, which is fast, defensive and physical.
The first intrasquad game took place on Friday, Aug. 12. Team Red scored one goal in each period to win 3-2 over Team White, while outshooting their opponents 38-26. The star of that game was Evan McGrath, a small centre from Oakville, Ontario who was drafted by Detroit in 2004. McGrath potted a goal and an assist in the first two periods. Teammate Steve Downie scored the second goal, while Blake Comeau of Saskatchewan netted the third goal short-handed, with an assist by defenceman Michael Funk of Abbotsford.
Team Whites two goals were scored by Andrew Cogliano of Woodbridge, Ontario and Aaron Gagnon of Armstrong, B.C., with assists by Benoit Pouliot of Ottawa; Guillaume Latendresse of Ste-Catherines, Ontario; Logan Stephenson of Outlook, Saskatchewan; and Wotjek Wolski of Mississauga, Ontario.
Team White came into Saturdays game with a chip on their shoulder and dominated the first two periods with physical play in both ends. Team Red rallied in the final period from a 4-1 deficit and came close to tying the game several times in the final minute of the game to finish 4-3.
Whites star for the first period was Guillaume Latendresse who scored the first goal and assisted on the second, while Andrew Cogliano assisted on both goals. Benoit Pouliot scored the second unanswered goal.
White continued to dominate in the second period with Cody Bass of Guelph, Ontario picking up a misplayed puck and adding a short-handed goal to go up 3-0.
Red answered back in the final minutes of the period with Kris Russel of Caroline, Alberta shoveling a backhand past Team White goalie Pier-Olivier Pelletier of St. Louis, Quebec.
Red picked things up in the third period, holding off Team White and keeping the pressure on. Persistence paid off in the final 10 minutes of play when North Vancouvers Gilbert Brule scored, assisted by Liam Reddox of Whitby, Ontario. In the final minutes Bryan Little of Cambridge, Ontario made it 4-3, assisted by Michael Funk.
Team Red pulled their goalie for the last minute, and a Team White penalty made it a six on four for the last few seconds of the game, but Red couldnt force the tie.
The teams played a tie-breaker on Monday in Vancouver, which Team Red took by score of 4-3. Steve Downie and Blake Comeau put Team Red up 2-0 in the first period, but Team White answered back in the second period to tie the game at 2-2. Guillaume Latendresse scored both goals, all but ensuring himself a starting spot on the roster with a camp-leading five points in three games.
Both teams added another goal, with Tyler Kenney of Sault Ste Marie, Ontario scoring for White, and Tom Pyatt of Thunder Bay, Ontario scoring for Red.
In the third period Team Red scored on the power play with Alex Bourret of St.-Guillaume, Quebec netting the game winner.
Things are already back to normal at Meadow Park Arena, although with a few more souvenirs in the trophy cases. That could change again if the Vancouver Canucks decide to host a training camp in Whistler later this summer.
According to Tindle the Canucks are considering Whistler as a site for a training camp, something that hasnt happened since 1999. Every year the Canucks spend training time in other communities to build support for the club around the province, while also giving their players an opportunity to bond as a team at a retreat.
"That would be the icing on the cake for us, we havent hosted a Canucks training camp for six years now and the word is that Whistler is one of the places theyre looking at," said Tindle.