Even though the World Juniors draws most of the attention when it comes to holiday international play, there's another pretty important post-Christmas international tournament as well. The World U17 Challenge takes place in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia this year, and will gather the best talent in the world in the 1997-born age group.
Here's a few notes of interest for this year's tournament:
-The United States' team will be made up entirely of the NTDP U17 team. This is usually the case, though there's usually an addition or two from outside the program to replace some injured players and shore up the roster. This year, with the NTDP U17s being pretty healthy, nobody from outside the NTDP program was invited to join the team.
-The US traditionally does pretty well in this tournament. They've took home a medal in every tournament since 2008, including a gold in 2010.
-The host Canadians split their entries into five separate teams: Ontario, Atlantic, Quebec, Pacific, and West. Ontario is usually by far the most competitive, followed by Pacific. This will be the last year Canada splits their teams like this. Starting next year, Canada will only have three teams in the tournament, and they won't be separated geographically.
-Major junior leagues have put greater emphasis on signing 16-year-olds in recent years, so the number of potential future college players is all that large. There are some Canadian players that have already verbally committed to NCAA schools, however. Western Michigan has three Canadians already committed: goalie Ben Blacker(Ontario), forward Colt Conrad(West), and defenseman Wyatt Kalynuk(West). Northeastern also has a commitment from Atlantic defenseman Cam Lee.
-While this tournament is primarily for '97 birthdates, this year's tournament will also be a showcase for some exceptional 1998-born players. Team Ontario's defense will feature two of those players in Sean Day, who was given 'exceptional status' to play in the OHL this year, and Jakob Chychrun, who is expected to be the top pick in the OHL Draft this spring. Tyler Benson, who was the top pick in last year's WHL Bantam Draft, will also be skating for Team Pacific.
-It's worth pointing out that Chychrun is a dual-citizen between the US and Canada. The U17 Challenge isn't an IIHF event, so this doesn't necessarily lock Chychrun into playing for Canada long-term, but after Chychrun was denied exceptional status to play in the USHL this year, and moved to Toronto to play, it seems very likely that he ends up skating for Canada internationally in the future.
Team West's Jackson Keane is listed as born in Denver, so he might be another dual-citizen. He's on the Sioux City Musketeers affiliate list, and is one of the Canadians that hasn't signed with a CHL team yet, so he could be an NCAA option.
-Some other notable names in this tournament: Jesse Gabrielle, who skated for Eagan High School last year is playing for Team West. Ty Comrie, who is the half-brother of Mike Comrie, and skated with the LA Kings AAA program, is on Team Pacific. Nathan Noel and Andrew Picco, who were both standouts at Shattuck-St. Mary's last year are playing for Team Atlantic.