By Tina Comeau
The World Junior A Challenge in Yarmouth has reached the midway point and yet, in a sense, things are just getting underway.
With the preliminary round completed, the tournament now shifts to the start of the medal rounds with the quarter-finals on Thursday.
The first Nov. 8 quarter-final matchup sees Switzerland and Russia playing at 4 p.m. and the Czech Republic and Canada East playing at 7:30 p.m. Canada East and Russia both went 1-0 in the preliminary round with the Czechs and the Swiss going 0-2.
Canada West and USA have each received a bye to Friday’s semi-finals after going 2-0 in the preliminary round.
Riley Wiwchar, Hockey Canada’s manager of events and marketing, says although the challenge officially got underway in Yarmouth Monday, when you shift into the quarter-final and semi-final games the planning essentially starts all over again.
“You don't know what teams are going to be playing at first. There are people working on meals and trying to shift who is eating where and when they are eating. Bus schedules change all the time, practice and game schedules change everyday,” he says.
And then there is the preparation for the weekend’s medal games. The bronze medal game goes Saturday evening at the Mariners Centre at 7:30 p.m.
The gold medal game will be played at 7 p.m. on Sunday evening.
TSN will be broadcasting the gold medal game live so there are preparations to make for that. As well, hockey will take a break on Sunday morning when Remembrance Day ceremonies are held at the Mariners Centre.
Sunday afternoon also sees the CJHL prospects game being played at 2 p.m. in Yarmouth. (A prospects game between the East and West Canadian teams will also be played Saturday evening in Digby.)
Still, with all that is yet to come – including making travel arrangements to get teams back home after they've been knocked out of the tournament – Hockey Canada officials are reflecting on what has taken place so far. Wiwchar says they have been impressed with how the event has unfolded in Yarmouth.
“I’m always hesitant to give an answer midway through the tournament but I would say yes, its’ exceeded expectations,” says Wiwchar, noting all games have seen a full house, including those at the 4 p.m. time slot that comes towards the end of the work day for many, and shortly after kids are getting out of school. “But it’s been packed here every game, so that’s been really good,” he says. “And the volunteers have been awesome,” he adds. “Any where you go people are asking, ‘Do you need help with anything?’, you can’t ask for anything better than that. And the Mariners Centre staff has been fantastic.”
Although the tournament started out with a few lopsided games – a 9-1 loss by Canada east to USA and a 7-0 shutout by USA over the Czech Republic – the games have since been tighter, which is a reflection of the calibre of hockey being played, Wiwchar says. Wednesday’s game between Canada West and Russia had to be determined in overtime.
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There are still a few tickets available for some games Wiwchar said Wednesday evening, but not many.
Aside from the people streaming into the Mariners Centre for the games, more scouts than first anticipated have also come to the tournament.
“Way more ended up coming,” Wiwchar says. “We were expecting about 85 NHL scouts and I know there have been a few general managers that have actually come out. Quebec major junior league sent 20 or 25 guys at the last minute. There is a lot of college scouts here too. I think we’re over 100.”
Aside from putting on a great event, another thing the local host committee has hoped is that this event – added to the track record that Yarmouth has when it comes to hosting large-scale events, such as Nova Scotia Music Week – will position this community well in future years when it looks to attract other big events.
Wiwchar feels it will.
“Absolutely,” he says. “Yarmouth has always had a pretty good track record and volunteers with different events. Hosting a hockey tournament of this level changes things a little bit but you’ve shown the capacity that is here.”
Mitch Bonnar, a chair of the event, says from the host committee’s perspective they are very pleased with how the event has gone so far.
“I think it’s going just wonderful. We’re packing the house, that’s all that counts,” he says. “Hockey Canada is ecstatic that we’re filling the house. They’re just blown away. I think they’re learning that they’re better off to hold these events in smaller areas.”
Bonnar thinks the success of this event does position Yarmouth well for going after events in the future. Bonnar also has high praise for the volunteers who have played an integral part in this tournament.
“They’re doing everything including cleaning up the trash, driving cars, feeding people, we’ve got people in the kitchen that you haven’t even seen,” he says. “I think we’ve got around 150 volunteers and everyone of them I can’t say enough about them.”
Bonnar isn’t surprised that the World Challenge has been embraced by the community, given the community’s affinity for its own junior A club franchise, the Yarmouth Mariners. He says hosting this event has been about generating economic activity for the community, and also to give local hockey players coming up through the minor hockey ranks something to aspire to.
“There is a lot more to hosting one of these tings than just playing hockey. We’re doing it for the kids, we’re doing it for the people, we’re doing it for the whole community,” he says.