Despite the fact that it is considered one of the "Big Four" major leagues in North America, hockey remains a small sport in many different ways. That size brings a sense of community, where everybody knows one another.
This is perhaps no more obvious then when it comes to events like the 2013 Home Hardware CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game. Despite featuring a selection of players from across Canada, the United States, the Czech Republic, Russia and even Denmark and Switzerland, you would be hard pressed to find a player participating in the game who hasn't crossed paths with at least a handful of his fellow players in another competition during his short career.
Many players are actually returning to Halifax after playing in the city during the 2011 Canada Winter Games. A competition that pits province against province, the Men's Hockey portion of this event featured players 15 years old and younger. The gold medal final saw Team British Columbia led by Curtis Lazar and Nicolas Petan along with Shea Theodore and Tristan Jarry defeat Team Quebec, which featured the likes of Jonathan Drouin, Anthony Duclair, Frederick Gauthier, Samuel Morin and Philippe Desrosiers. Lazar had a hat-trick in that gold medal game and led the event in scoring. Future Top Prospects game participants studded the lineups of the other provinces too, with Josh Morrissey and Morgan Klimchuk playing for the bronze medal-winning Team Alberta, Madison Bowey playing for Team Manitoba and Nathan MacKinnon playing for Team Nova Scotia. Team Ontario boasted the largest contingent of future Top Prospects featuring forwards Max Domi, Ryan Kujawinski and Bo Horvat along with defensemen Darnell Nurse and Jordan Subban in front of goaltender Spencer Martin.
This carousel of familiar faces continued at the Under-17 World Hockey Challenge the following winter, where players like Cole Cassels and Chris Bigras from Team Ontario and Zach Fucale for Team Quebec joined up with many returning players from the Canada Games. The Challenge also saw the introduction of European teams with Nikita Zadorov and Valentin Zykov competing for Team Russia and Jan Kostalek competing for Team Czech Republic.
Even players like Swiss-born Mirco Mueller and Oliver Bjorkstrand from Denmark have played against a number of their fellow Top Prospects participants during the Under-18's last spring and the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament last summer prior to joining their respective WHL clubs as rookies this year.
But does familiarity breed contempt or friendship? For Kingston Frontenacs' forward Ryan Kujawinski, events like the Top Prospects Game allows him to catch up with players he's played with or against in previous tournaments.
"It's always exciting to play at events like this and see all the guys again," he says. Kujawinski played for Team Ontario at both the Canada Games and the Under-17 Challenge, before lacing them up for Team Canada last summer to help win a gold medal at the Ivan Hlinka. Kujawinski speaks fondly of the core group of Ontario-born players who have moved through Hockey Canada's Program of Excellence together, in particular remembering the bronze medal that Team Ontario won at the 2012 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge in Windsor, Ontario last year.
"They're all great guys and it's great to see them all again," says Kujawinski, "It's all been great experiences, and it shows you how to play against all kinds of different players, like the teams from Europe at the Under-18's and the Under-17's. It teaches you to adjust to different systems."
It is a feeling that Kerby Rychel of the Windsor Spitfires shares. Although his late 1994 birthday actually put him in with a different group of players on the Program of Excellence path, Rychel is also looking forward to hitting the ice with some familiar faces.
These shared experiences aren't limited to just Hockey Canada's Program of Excellence. American players Seth Jones and Ryan Hartman may play in different leagues in the CHL, but they are once again reunited after a long history together with the U.S. National Team Development Program. Most recently, the pair traveled to Ufa, Russia for the World Juniors and returned with championship gold medals.
However, this time they will find themselves on opposing sides, with Hartman, a forward for the Plymouth Whalers dressing for Team Cherry, while Jones, a defenseman for the Portland Winterhawks is the captain of Team Orr.
Jones feels that all the familiar faces are due to one undeniable fact: these are the best players of their age group.
"All the players here deserve to be here, that's why it's the Top Prospects Game," explains Jones. "It's the best CHL prospects for the draft this year and anytime I can play with them, it's great. There are players like MacKinnon and Drouin on the other team, who I got to see at the World Juniors over in Russia a couple weeks ago. I'm not just focused on them of course; there are a lot of great players here."
He continues by saying that he enjoys the challenge that events like the Top Prospects Game presents, saying "That's where the most competitive hockey comes out in you."
Jones, Hartman and the rest of the CHL's top draft-eligible players hit the ice on Wednesday, January 16th for the 2013 Home Hardware CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game.
Follow Kevin Forbes on Twitter via @kforbesy