The next generation of American-born hockey stars in the Western United States and British Columbia ages 15 and under will compete this weekend in Kent in the inaugural Western Hockey League U.S. Challenge Cup.
Considered a premier tournament for Bantam AAA teams, games will be played Friday, Feb. 21, through Sunday, Feb. 23, at the accesso ShoWare Center and Kent Valley Ice Centre. The WHL in partnership with NHL Seattle and Visit Kent are sponsoring the tournament. Games are free to watch.
The Challenge Cup will showcase the next generation of stars while also fostering grassroots-level growth in the game in the Pacific Northwest. Many of the clubs competing have produced WHL and NHL stars, including the likes of Seth Jones (Dallas Stars Elite/Portland Winterhawks), Scott Gomez (Team Alaska/Tri-City Americans), and Kailer Yamamoto (Los Angeles Jr. Kings/Spokane Chiefs).
Twelve of the top-ranked Bantam teams will play a full schedule of 18 round-robin games. Beginning Friday, each team will play a three-game round-robin schedule. There’s a good chance fans will see players who one day make the NHL as several of the teams have produced professional players.
Games begin at 7:30 a.m. on Friday at both venues and continue all day with the last games starting at 7:30 p.m. Saturday games begin at 9:30 a.m. with the last games at 2 p.m. Sunday games start from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Teams will be ranked from first to 12th, setting the stage for final placement games on Sunday. The championship game will be at 1 p.m. at the ShoWare Center, home of the Kent-based Seattle Thunderbirds of the WHL, which features players ages 16 to 20.
As part of the WHL U.S. Challenge Cup experience, participating teams will be given a first-hand look at the WHL player experience as they attend the Saturday night game at the ShoWare Center between the Thunderbirds and visiting Portland Winterhawks.
Here’s a capsule look at each team as provided by tournament organizers:
Dallas Stars Elite ‘05
Having already provided the foundation for several notable players to succeed in the WHL’s U.S. Division, the Stars Elite ’05 will look to showcase the next generation of talent. WHL Alumni Cole Martin, who won a WHL Championship in 2015 with the Kelowna Rockets, currently coaches within the Dallas Stars Elite system.
• Key alumni: Seth Jones (NHL, Columbus Blue Jackets), Caleb Jones (NHL, Edmonton Oilers), Cross Hanas (WHL, Portland Winterhawks), Wyatte Wylie (WHL, Everett Silvertips)
Delta Hockey Academy Green
As one of the premier programs in the Canadian Sport School Hockey League (CSSHL), the Delta Hockey Academy are eager to showcase their next wave of talent. This year, the Delta Hockey Academy program boasts a .937 winning percentage in the CSSHL Bantam Prep Division.
• Key alumni: Brendan Gallagher (NHL, Montreal Canadiens), Tristan Jarry (NHL, Pittsburgh Penguins), Ty Smith (WHL, Spokane Chiefs)
Greater Vancouver Canadians
Competing for their first season in the British Columbia Major Bantam AAA League (BCMBL), the Greater Vancouver Canadians rank second with an 20-6-0-0 record. Head coach Adam Nugent-Hopkins is the older brother of former Red Deer Rebel and current Edmonton Oiler forward Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.
• Key alumni: Glenn Gawdin (AHL, Stockton Heat), Dante Hannoun (ECHL, Atlanta Gladiators), Nic Petan (NHL, Toronto Maple Leafs)
Los Angeles Junior Kings
The Kings have strong ties to past, present and future in the WHL. Led by former Saskatoon Blade Jack Bowkus as head coach, the team’s coaching staff also includes WHL alumni Nicholas Vachon, Ray Macais and Chase Souto. A pair of Junior Kings were selected at the 2019 WHL Bantam Draft.
• Key alumni: Kailer Yamamoto (NHL, Edmonton Oilers), Eric Comrie (NHL, Winnipeg Jets), Dustin Wolf (WHL, Everett Silvertips)
Coached by former Seattle Thunderbirds defenceman Jason Beckett, the Okanagan Rockets will bring a competitive roster. The Rockets currently sit first in the BC Major Bantam League with an 24-0-1-1 record and had three players selected at the 2019 WHL Bantam Draft.
• Key alumni: Eli Zummack (WHL, Spokane Chiefs), Jack Finley (WHL, Spokane Chiefs), Liam Hughes (WHL, Winnipeg ICE)
Phoenix Junior Coyotes
Compete in the Tier 1 Elite Hockey League that stretches from coast to coast. A pair of Arizona players were selected at the 2019 WHL Bantam Draft, including Colton Langkow, the son of WHL alumni Daymond Langkow.
• Key alumni: Mark Kastelic (WHL, Calgary Hitmen), Jeremy Masella (WHL, Prince Albert Raiders), Daylan Kuefler (WHL, Kamloops Blazers)
San Diego Saints
Established in 2002, the Saints will be one of three teams from California at the tournament. WHL alumni Jonathan Parker is a coach within the Saints’ system. Parker played for the Seattle Thunderbirds and Prince Albert Raiders between 2008 and 2011 before moving into professional hockey.
• Key alumni: Jonathan Parker (AHL, Rochester Americans)
San Jose Junior Sharks
On the heels of three players being selected at the 2019 WHL Bantam Draft, the Sharks will look to showcase the talents of this year’s roster. WHL alumni and former NHL players Curtis Brown and Mike Rathje currently play leading roles in the overall development of the program.
• Key alumni: Brendan Jensen (WHL, Vancouver Giants), Michael Mylchreest (WHL, Prince George Cougars)
Seattle Junior 14U Admirals
The hometown team at the tournament, the Admirals are determined to represent well. The team features players from all over the Greater Seattle area and will be looking to build upon the 2019 WHL Bantam Draft, which saw a pair of players from Washington state selected.
• Key alumni: Hunter Campbell (WHL, Everett Silvertips), Mekai Sanders (WHL, Seattle Thunderbirds)
Team Alaska 14U
With the U.S. Division having fostered the further growth of Alaska’s best hockey talents, Team Alaska will showcase their entire roster. Four players from the northern-most state were selected at the 2019 WHL Bantam Draft. Anchorage product and WHL alumni Erik Felde is an assistant coach with the team.
• Key alumni: Scott Gomez (NHL, New Jersey Devils), Brandon Dubinsky (NHL, Columbus Blue Jackets), Nate Thompson (NHL, Montreal Canadiens)
West Van Warriors
Founded in 2015, the Warriors currently lead the CSSHL’s Bantam Prep division with a 24-5-1-0 record. The Warriors claimed victory at the Bauer Bantam Elite Invitational Tournament in British Columbia’s Lower Mainland in October 2019. At the 2019 WHL Bantam Draft, the program saw three players selected.
• Top WHL prospect: Connor Bedard (CSSHL, West Van Academy Prep)
Boasting 11 selections from the 2019 WHL Bantam Draft, Yale Hockey Academy has a strong history of success. They’ve maintained that reputation this season with victories at Calgary’s Rocky Mountain Classic and St. Albert’s John Reid Memorial Tournament.
• Key alumni: Shea Theodore (NHL, Vegas Golden Knights), Jake Virtanen (NHL, Vancouver Canucks), Bowen Byram (WHL, Vancouver Giants), Dylan Cozens (WHL, Lethbridge Hurricanes)