Canada Winter Games a launching pad for present and future National Hockey League stars
By Tim Wharnsby – HipCheck Media
One of the first times Adam Henrique felt like a man of the hour was at the 2007 Canada Winter Games when he celebrated a gold-medal championship with Team Ontario in Whitehorse.
Performing on a loaded team that included eventual NHL stars Steven Stamkos, Alex Pietrangelo and Nazem Kadri, Ontario defeated an underdog Manitoba team 6-4 in the under-17 men’s tournament.
A dozen years later, the win remains near and dear to Henrique, who in his ninth NHL season and nearing his 600th combined career NHL regular-season and playoff game. When the Anaheim Ducks centre was visiting family back in Burford, Ont. (near Brantford in the province’s Golden Horseshoe region) during this year’s NHL All-Star break the polar vortex was chilling the air. The frigid temperatures triggered memories of Whitehorse.
“It was cold. . . . real cold,” the 29-year-old Henrique said. “But it was a cool experience because it had a mini Olympics feeling there. It was a cool experience because of all the athletes from different sports, not just hockey.
“You look back at the team we had, then we came up with the gold medal, it was pretty memorable.”
Manitoba was led by current Calgary Flames defenceman Travis Hamonic and David Toews, the younger brother of three-time Stanley Cup champion Jonathan Toews of the Chicago Blackhawks.
Manitoba had upset Jordan Eberle, current Winnipeg Jets defeneman Tyler Myers and Alberta 5-1 in the semifinals. But Alberta rebounded to defeat British Columbia 4-3 in the bronze-medal match.
“It was an underrated event,” Henrique said. “Even then, I really didn’t know what we were getting into. I didn’t realize at the time that this was such a big deal, and that makes it all the more special to reflect back on. It was a lot of fun to be a part of because of the number of great, young athletes.”
Henrique progressed in a hockey career that has seen him win back-to-back Memorial Cup titles with the 2008-09 and 2009-10 Windsor Spitfires. He scored three game-winning goals (two series clinchers in overtime) as a rookie in the New Jersey Devils dance to the 2012 Stanley Cup final and he was nominated for the Calder Trophy that season.
“The Canada Winter Games was a special time and something I’m glad I experienced,” he said. “At the time it was huge because it gave me the extra confidence I needed. There were so many great players in that age group.
“It’s still neat to look back and see how many of those guys made it to the NHL, and that was our dream back then.”
Many of the talented players from this tournament have gone on to play for Canada at the World junior championship. From the last Canada Winter Games, four members of the gold-medal winning 2015 Ontario team — goalie Michael DiPietro, defenceman Markus Phillips, forwards Nick Suzuki and Owen Tippett — each played for the 2019 Canadian junior team in Vancouver last month.
“It is a great experience for the top young players across the country to showcase their skill and play in a highly-competitive environment that mirrors future international events that they could participate in,” said Hamilton Bulldogs general manager Steve Staios, who also is part of the Canadian junior team’s management group.
Two players who will receive plenty of attention in Red Deer will be 15-year-old forwards Matthew Savoie and Shane Wright. The two have applied for exceptional status to play major junior hockey under the age of 16 in the Western Hockey League and Ontario Hockey League, respectively next season, something previously done by John Tavares, Aaron Ekblad and Connor McDavid.
Savoie, of St. Albert will play for Alberta, while Wright – who plays for the Don Mills Flyers minor midget team in the Greater Toronto Hockey League - hopes to help Ontario successfully defend its championship from four years ago in Prince George, B.C.
“Every province has talented teams in this age group and the calibre is exceptional,” said Ontario head coach Jeff Jordan, an assistant with Ontario in 2015. “Many of these players will play for Canada at the under-18 and World Junior levels.
“It’s really neat to see these players at this age. I know I can’t wait to see the calibre of play and what happens when play begins.”