While the first puck drop is still four months away, the coaching staffs are in place, the camps have been scheduled and the road to the 2009 World Junior A Challenge in Summerside, P.E.I. has begun.
Canada West and Canada East – the only teams to medal at all three World Junior A Challenges – have put the finishing touches on their staffs and will soon begin the scouting process as the tournament heads east for the first time.
For the westerners, who saw their two-year reign as gold medalists end with a loss to the United States in last year’s final game in Camrose, Alta., it will be a familiar face behind the bench, as Rylan Ferster returns for his second-consecutive tour of duty, his first as the team’s head coach. Ferster, the head coach of the BCHL’s Salmon Arm Silverbacks, has big shoes to fill: he is replacing Boris Rybalka, who led Canada West to two golds and a silver in his three years at the helm.
"To be able to be part of anything with Hockey Canada is truly an honor," says Ferster. "Last year was a great experience, to work with elite athletes and coaches like Boris Rybalka and Dwight McMillan. We have assembled a great staff this year, and hopefully we can reclaim the gold."
Joining Ferster behind the Canada West bench will be a pair of assistant coaches – Larry Wintoneak of the SJHL’s Kindersley Klippers and Barry Butler of the MJHL’s Wawayseecappo Wolverines. The three coaches, along with general manager Leonard Strandberg – who returns for a second tournament as GM – will scout players at games and showcase events in Canada West’s five leagues (BCHL, AJHL, SJHL, MJHL, SIJHL) in the early weeks of the Junior A season before the final roster is named in mid-October.
"This season provides us with new challenges in putting together a team that will challenge for a gold medal, challenges that we as a staff are prepared to meet head on," says Strandberg. "Rylan, Larry and Barry, along with myself, will strive to put together a group of character individuals with all the tools and abilities necessary to compete at this elite level."
Canada West will hold an evaluation camp in late September, with dates and locations announced at a later date.
For Canada East, which failed to reach the gold medal for the first time in three years in 2008, settling for bronze, there will be the added pressure of playing on home ice for the first time ever. Leading the way will be head coach Todd Gill, who played parts of 19 NHL seasons with seven teams (Toronto, San Jose, St. Louis, Detroit, Phoenix, Colorado, Chicago) and now serves as owner and head coach of the CJHL’s Brockville Braves.
"Any time you can represent your country is a privilege; I was fortunate to represent Canada as a player at the IIHF World Championship (in 1992), and it was an experience I will never forget," says Gill. "I'm excited to be able to coach some of Canada's most talented Junior A players and very fortunate to have two highly-respected coaches to help achieve the goal of bringing home gold."
Gill will have plenty of previous World Junior A Challenge experience on the Canada East staff to draw from – assistant coach Patrice Bosch of the LJHAAAQ’s Inouk de Granby won bronze with the 2008 team in Camrose in the same role, while general manager Marty Abrams of the OJHL’s Wellington Dukes makes his fourth appearance in as many years – his third as GM after serving as an assistant coach at the first tournament in 2006 in Yorkton, Sask. James Richmond of the OJHL’s Georgetown Raiders will serve as the other assistant coach.
"I believe we are in a terrific position to go into Summerside and win Canada East’s first gold medal," says Abrams. "We will be looking for players with heart and determination, and with the coaching we have assembled we feel we have a great chance to be successful."
Canada East will hold camps through August for the five leagues that make up Canada East (OJHL, NOJHL, CJHL, LHJAAAQ, MJAHL) and will, like Canada West, scout players at games and showcase events early in the season.
The 2009 World Junior A Challenge kicks off on November 1 at Credit Union Centre in Summerside.
(Nathan also is a writer for Maineiacs Post to Post and the Maine Hockey Journal. He can be reached at email@example.com)