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Calgary continues to feed national junior hockey program

By Sonny Sachdeva, January 19, 2016 —

The 2016 International Ice Hockey Federation World Junior Championship came to a close earlier this month. While the tournament resulted in a less than spectacular finish for Team Canada, who were ousted by Finland via a 6–5 loss in the quarterfinals, the Canadian team’s roster still struck a cord in Calgary.

The city’s fingerprints were all over Canada’s entry for the World Juniors tournament, which remains the premier event for the top young prospects in the sport, showing how Calgary continues to play a prominent role in Canada’s international junior program.

In terms of the players themselves, three of the team’s prominent players boasted strong Calgary ties. Leading the pack was team captain and Calgary native Brayden Point.

Point began his career with the Canmore Eagles of the Alberta Junior Hockey League before joining the Western Hockey League’s Moose Jaw Warriors. He was drafted in the third round of the 2014 NHL Entry Draft by the Tampa Bay Lightning and, at just 19 years old, has already suited up for Canada on four different occasions.

Calgary’s own WHL team played a key role as well. Jake Virtanen, one of the 2016 Canadian team’s elder statesmen, reigned as one of the Calgary Hitmen’s top stars for three seasons before graduating to the NHL. A first-round pick of the Vancouver Canucks in 2014, Virtanen is currently in the midst of his rookie season with the professional club.

The Hitmen also sent defender Travis Sanheim to the 2016 World Junior Championship — their only current roster player at the tournament. Sanheim led all WHL defencemen in scoring last season, racking up 65 points in 67 games for the Hitmen. He currently ranks fourth in scoring among all Hitmen skaters with 34 points this season — despite missing 20 of his club’s 46 games.

Sanheim is the 18th player in Calgary Hitmen history to suit up at the World Junior tournament. The local WHL club has sent at least one player to the event in 14 of the last 15 years — not only for Canada, but also to represent Sweden, Slovakia, Slovenia, Germany and the Czech Republic — and has seen their players win gold in six of those years.

But the Hitmen weren’t the only Saddledome residents that had an impact on Canada’s World Juniors roster.

The Calgary Flames had three prospects at the event. Goaltender Mason McDonald earned one of the coveted spots in Team Canada’s cage, and got the nod to start game one of the tournament. Defender Brandon Hickey — a Leduc native — earned a shot for the Canadians as well, while defender Adam Ollas-Mattsson played for Sweden.

Even Canada’s coaching squad held a strong Calgary connection. Canada’s head coach was none other than Dave Lowry, who formerly coached the Hitmen and served as an assistant coach with the Calgary Flames. But Lowry’s strongest connection to the city is from his playing days, when he suited up for the Flames from 2000–04, serving as the team’s captain for part of that stint.

Calgary’s effect on the national junior program continues to thrive due to the myriad of prospects who either hail from the area or suit up for local teams. With Hockey Canada’s headquarters located at Calgary’s Canada Olympic Park, it seems the city’s effect won’t fade any time soon. With the World Juniors out of the way, the organization is now focused  on the 2016 World Sledge Hockey Challenge, which began on Jan. 17 and concludes on Jan. 23 in Bridgewater, Nova Scotia.

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