By Andy Eide
KENT – Some of the top youth hockey players in Western North America will be descending on the Seattle area in February as the Western Hockey League announced Tuesday the formation of the inaugural WHL U.S. Challenge Cup.
The Cup will be a premier tournament for Bantam AAA (players under 14-years-old) hockey teams in the Western United States and British Columbia. The players in this tournament are among the best in their age group and will be eligible for the WHL Bantam Draft in the spring.
How good are these guys?
“There will be some players in this tournament that will play in the NHL, there’s no doubt about that,” Seattle Thunderbirds General Manager Bil La Forge says. “There will be a lot of players that become very good Western Hockey League players as well.”
Twelve teams will compete in a round-robin style tournament that will primarily be held at the Thunderbirds home, the accesso ShoWare Center,between February 20 and 23rd with some games played at nearby Kent Valley Ice Center.
The WHL is partnering with NHL Seattle and Visit Kent to put on the Cup and not only will it help bring attention to the sport in the Seattle area, it will expose American born players to the WHL.
“We believe it’s going to become the premier Bantam tournament in the United States and it will be held right here in Kent,” WHL commissioner Ron Robinson said. “Its going to be a showcase and a great opportunity for these players to witness for the first time in many cases a Western Hockey League game.”
Top Bantam Programs
The American teams that will be playing in the U.S. Cup includes the Dallas Stars Elite ’05, Los Angeles Jr. Kings, Phoenix Jr. Coyotes, Sand Diego Saints, San Jose Jr. Sharks, Team Alaska 14U, and Seattle Junior 14U. They will matchup with five acadamies from British Columbia including Delta Hockey Academy Green, the Greater Vancouver Canadians, Okanagan Rockets, West Van Warriors and Yale Academy.
These programs have produced a number of NHL players and prospects, as well as WHL stars.
The list includes, but not limited to, Edmonton Oilers prospect Kailer Yamamoto (Jr. Kings and Spokane Chiefs), Columbus Blue Jackets Defenseman Seth Jones (Dallas Stars Elite and Portland Winterhawks), Vancouver Canucks goalie Thatcher Demko (Jr. Kings), and Vegas Golden Knights defenseman Shea Theodore (Yale Academy and Thunderbirds), and Calgary Flames draft pick Dustin Wolf (Jr. Kings and Everett Silvertips).
Recruiting American-born players to the WHL
The U.S. Cup is part of a larger WHL strategy to draw attention and commitments from more American-born players.
“We feel it’s really important to begin identifying more U.S. players,” Robison said. “We have less than 10-percent of our rosters made up of U.S. players. We have a strong U.S. Division with five teams and we want to build on U.S. talent. We think this tournament will not only attract some very, very fine young prospects but it gives us an opportunity to identify them and allow us to hopefully convince them that the Western Hockey League would be a good option.”
Along with the Challenge Cup the WHL announced it will begin holding a two-round American Prospect Draft starting in March of 2020, prior to the league’s annual Bantam Draft. Robison added that more details concerning the draft, such as how the draft order is going to be determined, will be forthcoming in the new year.
An American Prospect Draft is similar to one that is conducted by the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. A draft that has mixed success.
“We feel we’ve got a little bit more penetration into the U.S. to begin with,” he says. “We think we’ve got a built in advantage but we’ve certainly shared those ideas, the Quebec draft is interesting and we feel we’ve always had high quality U.S. players and we think we can build on that.”
Americans have found their way to playing in the WHL but with the growth of hockey in the United States, and especially in the West and California, there is an opportunity to expand the talent pool in league.
As a development league, attracting more players to the WHL will only increase the quality of play and in turn, player development.
The number of U.S. born players in the NHL has steadily grown and currently 26-percent of NHLers grew up wearing red, white, and blue. That is the second only to Canada and the U.S. is seeing similar growth at the youth level.
USA Hockey’s annual report for 2018-2019 indicated that they saw a record 123,303 kids eight years and under participate in hockey at an entry level. Monitoring the numbers of players learning the sport at that level is how USA Hockey monitors growth of the sport.
There were 44 American players in the WHL during the 2018-2019 season which is a slight decrease when looking at the past few years, with a high-water mark during the 2014-2015 season.
Western states like Arizona, California, and Texas are also seeing a growth. Of those, Califorina is among the fastest growing hockey states in the country thanks to the success of the San Jose Sharks, Los Angeles Kings, and Anaheim Ducks.
California hockey is booming.
Nick Vachon, who is the general manager of the Los Angeles Jr. Kings, says that despite there being between 30-35 rinks within driving distance of Los Angeles, they are running out of space.
“We’re starving for ice,” he says. “We don’t have enough. We have no room to grow our program. We have 35 teams and we’re busting at the seams just trying to find ice, anywhere. If it wasn’t so expensive to run a rink day to day there’d probably be 100 rinks.”
The WHL would like to attract more of those kids – and kids from all Western states — into its league.
American players have options and the draw of playing NCAA hockey is a strong one. Players who sign with a WHL team are ineligible to play NCAA hockey, so the recruitment of players starts early, usually after a player is selected in the WHL’s Bantam Draft.
“College hockey pushes their presentation pretty hard on why you should go college hockey,” Wolf told the Sound of Hockey Podcast in August. “By no means do they have a bad pitch, it’s a good pitch. I think the Western Hockey League needs to step up a little bit in that regard. It’s a great league and I’ve played in it for two years now. Really nothing bad to say about it, I’ve had really great experiences and it definently helped me in the draft this last year.”
American programs like the Jr. Kings have a wide representation when it comes to where their players end up playing at the next level.
That includes the WHL, a league that Vachon played in himself. After starting off at Boston University, Vachon left to play a season and a half in the WHL, with the Portland Winterhawks from 1991 through 1993. He says the league does have a presence in Southern California.
“Our kids are very aware of it,” he says. “There’s more and more it seems, each year, where the focus is to try and go the WHL route. It depends on every birth year but our kids, in particular the 05’s, are very aware of the WHL draft coming up for them this year and a lot of kids are hoping to be selected. Its definently something they know and it’s a fantastic league.”
In order to try and increase awareness, the WHL has held prospect camps in Anaheim for the last 14 seasons and Robison felt that the tournament would be a better route as it would bring players and families to a WHL facility.
He says the league will continue to explore prospect camps and combines in California, Texas, and Arizona.
Getting the players attention is one matter, getting them to commit is another.
“All players have options, but they’ve maybe been made aware of the other option more than ours,” La Forge says. “It’s always tough to recruit those players but I think it’s something we’ve attempted to do and it’s something we’re working on every day. We have a lot of American players on our list right now and we’re talking to them and trying to get that to work.”
With the U.S. Challenge Cup happening in an American City like Seattle, in a WHL facility, the hope is that exposure will lead to more interest. It’s exposure that goes both ways.
For the players, they can see what life in the WHL may look like, for WHL teams, it’s a chance to scout players for future drafting and recruitment.
“It’s going to be a highly scouted event and an opportunity to see highly talented players playing in a WHL rink,” La Forge says. “Anytime you bring a lot of prospects into your building it’s easy for us to get eyes on them. And the facilities we have here is a recruiting opportunity for us. Our coaches, our staff, our facilities are so high end that it makes it easy for us.”
More information about game times and ticket availability will be released on a future date by the Western Hockey League.