Wed Nov 28
Written By: Watts, Jesse

For many young hockey players, December is a month where they set their sights on international duty for their country. 

While veteran WHL stars such as Portland’s Ty Rattie, Medicine Hat’s Hunter Shinkaruk and Moose Jaw’s Morgan Rielly will be dreaming of playing for Team Canada at the 2013 IIHF World Junior Championships in Russia, many WHL rookies already know they will be facing off against international competition at the 2013 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge in Quebec.

The rosters for Team West and Team Pacific have been announced and 32 current WHL players will be suiting up for the two clubs.  Team West, made up of players from Manitoba and Saskatchewan, featured 14 WHL players while Team Pacific, comprised of players from Alberta and British Columbia, boasts 18 WHL players.

“It’s an honor to be named to Team Pacific,” said Calgary Hitmen 16-year-old Jake Virtanen, a product of Abbotsford, B.C., who was the first overall pick from the 2011 WHL Bantam Draft.  “It’ll be really exciting to go to Quebec and play against the Russians, Sweden and Finland, and the Americans, and it’ll be a great test for us.”

Held annually in Canada, the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge features the best 16-year-old players from across the planet.  Canada sends five regional entries to the tournament, including the Pacific and West entries along with Ontario, Quebec and the Atlantic provinces.

“I have never played against teams of players from places like Russia, so we’ll see how it goes when we get out there,” said Kamloops Blazers’ defenceman Jordan Thomson, of the who was the fourth overall pick from the 2011 WHL Bantam Draft.  “I can’t wait to wear that jersey with the Canada logo on it.”

For the Canadian entries, the Under-17 tournament is the first step in Hockey Canada’s Program of Excellence.  It’s an opportunity to go up against the elite players of their age group while also giving Hockey Canada a chance to evaluate talent for the Under-18 level and beyond.

“I think the level of competition will be very intense out there,” said Virtanen.  “There will be some pressure for all of us, and we’ll have to make sure we work hard.”

Many of the players who make up Team West and Pacific are already familiar with one another.  A number of them played with or against each other through Bantam and Midget tournament and at the 2011 Western Canada Under-16 Challenge Cup.

The opportunity to play in the 2013 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge also represents an opportunity to catch up with friends, former team mates and former and current opponents.

“It brings me back to last year when I played in the U-16 tournament,” said Thomson, who played for Team Manitoba in the 2011 Under-16 event.  “I’ve got a lot of friends from Manitoba and Saskatchewan who are on (Team West), and there are lots of good, skilled players on this team, which is exciting.

“I’m looking forward to playing with (Lethbridge defenceman) Ryan Pilon, who is a good buddy of mine, (Prince Albert Raiders forward) Reid Gardiner and Rhett Gardner…but, I think we all have a pretty good bond together,” added Thomson.

Virtanen says he’s looking forward to playing with several of his old friends while also suiting up alongside players he normally goes up against in the WHL.

“Obviously, (Moose Jaw Warriors forward) Brayden Point is a guy who is having a great year, and is lighting it up, so it’ll be good to have him on our side,” said Virtanen, who will head to the U-17 tournament with Hitmen team mate Josh Thrower.  “(Lethbridge Hurricanes forward) Reid Duke is another guy who will be fun to play with.”

The 2013 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge kicks off on December 29th and wraps up with the Gold and Bronze medal games on January 4th.

For more on the 2013 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge, visit www.hockeycanada.ca