Hockey Canada has a bit of a problem in that it makes enough money in spite of itself that it rarely looks at what it's doing, and whether it could be doing it better.
Case in point: their approach to the World Under-17 challenge that will get going next month, and for which Hockey Canada just recently announced its three entrants.
If you're not familiar with the tourney, it's both Hockey Canada's initiation for players into its national team program (the first level at which players represent Canada), and also the first real international event of the season on the hockey calendar. It's also a tournament that the second and third tier hockey nations sit out, leaving an eight team field including Russia, Sweden, Finland, the Czech Republic, the United States (represented by the USNDTP U-17 roster), and Canada's three entries.
Last year marked a change in Hockey Canada's approach. Prior to the tournament in Sarnia, Canada had five entrants based on regional teams: Atlantic, Quebec, Ontario, West, and Pacific. As some of the smaller communities struggled to field competitive teams (shocking that a roster composed entirely of Atlantic Canada players struggled to compete against all of Russia), the program was consolidated.
Three programs makes more sense; still fulfilling the goal of allowing Hockey Canada's brass to see a lot of different players compete in international tournament play against top competition. The majority of the Under-18 roster that will compete in 2017, and the World Juniors rosters in 2018 and 2019 will be made up of players competing in this tournament, so this is an audition for the more prestigious levels of international play.
The problem is that Hockey Canada goes about constructing these teams in a really stupid fashion.
As with most things Hockey Canada does, they aim to strike a balance of representation between the three CHL leagues, the QMJHL, OHL and WHL. If an OHL coach is named Head Coach of the Under-18 program, the assistants will surely be named from the Q and the Dub, and vice versa.
It's no different here. Erie Otters Head Coach Kris Knoblauch will helm the cleverly named Canada Red, flanked by a pair of Western assistants in Swift Current Broncos assistant Jamie Heward and new University of Alberta coach Serge Lajoie.
Canada White is led by Portland Winterhawks boss Jamie Kompon, assisted by Rouyn-Noranda head coach Gilles Bouchard and new Soo Greyhounds head coach Drew Bannister. Canada Black is represented by Baie-Comeau Drakkar head coach Marco Pietroniro, aided by former Sarnia Sting head coach Trevor Letowski and North Bay Battallion assistant Ryan Oulahan.
The distribution of players selected for the team also fairly equally represents the three regions of major junior hockey; the QMJHL region sends the fewest with 18 total players, while the OHL region sends the most with 26 (there were some injury replacements that I believe slightly skew the numbers).
So you have coaching staffs being pulled from all three regions of Canada, you have players being pulled from all regions of Canada, and the solution for how to approach the tournament is... to mix everything up in a blender. This makes zero sense.
I think I have a reputation as being somebody who looks on the cynical side of a lot of things in hockey. Maybe that's true to an extent. The reality is that I want hockey to be the best form of what it can be and when the people in charge do things that are so obviously incorrect and dismiss any sort of contrary opinion it drives me crazy. It's blatantly obvious that there's a better way, it's right there why don't you see it?!?!?
The reason I think this is such a basic error in approaching this tournament is two-fold. First is that due to the nature of junior hockey's club system in Canada, the players (and coaches, which is another matter entirely...) are spread far and wide across hockey's junior system. Taking into account the ages of the kids in this tournament, the three major junior leagues plus five other Junior "A" leagues (including the USHL) and a midget player are representing Canada here.
That's a lot of ground for Hockey Canada's scouting network to cover, and many of these coaches are going to have little to no knowledge of their players going in to the tournament, which when you go up against programs such as the United States U-17 National Program, that live, play and train together year-round, puts Canada's team at a distinct disadvantage in actual tournament play. This and a raft of injuries led to Canada's three entries getting waxed at the 2014 tournament.
The second reason this is an error is that there's a ready-made solution that solves a lot of the first problem's issues; if you're going to create three Canada entries, do them alongside the regional divides of the QMJHL, OHL and WHL.
The benefits here are obvious. While entering three teams is really seen as more of a developmental tool than one designed to win at all costs, these are still hyper-competitive young athletes who've trained for a chance to represent their country (for many this is the only chance they will ever get). Putting them in a situation where they are completely alien to their teammates and coaches undermines their opportunity to play at the best level possible.
This switch wouldn't solve the problem entirely, but you're definitely going to have more familiarity playing with kids you've got previous experience playing with and against rather than kids from an entire different end of the country. And for the coaching staff, having a Western-based staff pick players based in Western Canada makes more sense than the house league style split up they currently do.
The other factor is that it gives the best young players of each league a chance to match best against best and claim bragging rights for their league, and gives the host city a clear team to rally behind rather than tepidly cheering for three randomly coloured teams representing their country.
Ultimately, this sort of switch doesn't make a significant difference. It's a tournament well down on the list of things hockey fans prioritize and only the biggest draft nuts will be paying attention. It's just one of those little decisions that when you see it gotten wrong, it plants seeds of doubt as to whether the people in charge can get the bigger stuff right.