Calgary Saddledome readies for 2014 BMO CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game

By Glen Erickson

Aaron Ekblad - Barrie Colts

Photo: Barrie Colts defenseman Aaron Ekblad is the top-rated defenseman taking part in the 2014 BMO CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game, although Central Scouting’s highest ranked North American forward, Sam Bennett, will miss the game due to injury (courtesy of Terry Wilson/OHL Images)

With 40 of the top junior players from the Canadian Hockey League arriving in this bustling National Hockey League city in wintery western Canada, there is a very solid chance this annual all-star game of sorts will capture plenty of attention from Calgary and area sports fans when Team Cherry faces off against Team Orr in the 2014 BMO CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game on Wednesday night.

However, simply arriving in Calgary, affectionately known as “Cowtown” for its western heritage, has been challenging. While CHL types initially had concerns about flights leaving the city of Toronto to carry players from eastern Canada out west, blizzard-like conditions in Calgary actually delayed many flights from landing. Some players did arrive as scheduled while others were not so fortunate.

On Day One of the event, the players met at the Saddledome for a brief skate and some behind-the-scenes formalities. There was plenty of attention from the assembled media as well, jockeying for opportunities to speak with the top juniors in the country. But first up for questions was the Director of NHL Central Scouting, Dan Marr.

“Anytime you get an opportunity to get the top players in the country all in one place is a tremendous advantage,” Marr said. “Often times this is the first time an NHL GM will get a look at these players first hand. He’s been hearing about them in different meetings and conversations with scouts. So the scouts kind of have their fingers crossed that the players gives them that type of game.

“For the scouts it’s an extra crossover opportunity to see the players playing a little bit outside the element of their team games.”

NHL Central Scouting released its annual Midterm Rankings just prior to the festivities in Calgary, and Sam Bennett of the Kingston Frontenacs topped the list of North American Skaters. Bennett will not play in Calgary this week due to a groin injury.

“Over the course of the season, it has evolved that there are four or five front-runners now,” said Marr. “(The) reasons that went in Sam’s favour is that he has that high-skill game and he’s a dynamic skater. He has a competitive edge where we think he can go out and be a game-changer.”

Leon Draisaitl (Prince Albert Raiders), Aaron Ekblad (Barrie Colts) and Sam Reinhart (Kootenay Ice), who are all in Calgary, round out the top four respectively.

When asked if he figured the players were at any kind of disadvantage given the format of the game, where they will play only once with a variety of teammates they have likely never skated with, Marr was quick to point out that there is some continuity among the top players, given their exposure to various programs and international competition.

“I think today’s player is kind of used to this attention leading up to the draft in their draft year,” Marr said. “They’re together quite often because they are the best of the best in Hockey Canada U18 and U17 programs, and they play in Subway Series games.

“They’re kind of prepared for this. I think the kids enjoy it and they fit right in – they know what to do. They know the purpose of it and they prepare themselves.”

The players will practice a couple of times and will also undergo some on- and off-ice testing while in Calgary. Come game time, the teams will be led by a host of former NHL players with roots in the Calgary Flames organization.

Team Cherry will be led by Jim Peplinski, Paul Reinhart, Mark Hunter and guest coach Nick Kypreos. The Team Orr coaching staff features Tim Hunter, Mike Vernon and Joel Otto, along with guest coach Doug McLean.

News & Notes…A total of 20 players from the OHL have been named to the rosters, while there are 13 players from the WHL and seven from the QMJHL…Eight teams have more than one player attending, led by the Plymouth Whalers with three. The Kingston Frontenacs, Peterborough Petes, Red Deer Rebels, Swift Current Broncos, Calgary Hitmen, Niagara IceDogs and Sarnia Sting have two players in attendance…There are four father-son combinations here, juniors with fathers who had significant NHL careers. They are Daniel Audette of the Sherbrooke Phoenix (Donald), Ryan MacInnis of the Kitchener Rangers (Al), Brendan Lemieux of the Barrie Colts, (Claude) and Sam Reinhart of the Kootenay Ice (Paul)…Al MacInnis won a Stanley Cup as a member of the Calgary Flames in 1989….Six players in attendance also played in the 2013 CCM/USA All-American Prospects Game in Pittsburgh, including Chase De Leo (Portland Winterhawks), Blake Clarke (North Bay Battalion), Ryan McInnis (Kitchener Rangers), Alex Nedeljkovic (Plymouth Whalers), Anthony DeAngelo (Sarnia Sting) and Aaron Haydon (Niagara Ice Dogs)…Calgary has played host to the BMO CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game twice previously, in 1999 when Team Orr defeated Team Cherry, 4-3, then in 2001 when Team Orr earned a 5-3 decision over Team Cherry…Last season, in Halifax, Team Orr defeated Team Cherry, 3-0.

Follow Glen Erickson on Twitter via @glenerickson51