By Tyler Lowey, Times Reporter
Two former standouts from their time with the Foothills CFR Chemicals Bisons put their best foot forward in hopes of making Team Canada West.
The top 60 Junior A players from the B.C. Hockey League, Alberta Junior Hockey League, Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League, Manitoba Junior Hockey League and Superior International Junior Hockey League funneled to the Markin MacPhail Centre at Canada Olympic Park Dec. 2-5 for four days of practices and games as part of the selection camp.
The selection camp was in place to narrow down the roster for Team Canada West to compete at the 2017 World Junior A Challenge.
Highlighting the roster invitees were Blake Wells and Hunter Virostek, who both spent a midget AAA season in Strathmore.
Wells, 18, was a forward on last year’s final edition of the Bisons. In 31 games, he scored 13 goals and 27 points. These days, Wells played for the Okotoks Oilers of the AJHL, where he has five goals and 12 points in 26 games.
Virostek, 19, suited up between the pipes for the Bisons two seasons ago, where he went 10-6-3 with a .921 save percentage and a 2.37 goals against average. This season, Virostek is experiencing his best year at the junior level, as he currently sits 13-8-1 with a .904 save percentage and a 2.61 goals against average for the Drumheller Dragons of the AJHL.
“Both are doing very well with their respected teams this season and are very deserving to be here. It’s a great opportunity for both of their careers and they are both having a ton of fun,” said Team Canada Blue Assistant Coach Matt Keillor.
The selection camp split the 60 hopefuls into three different teams; Red, White and Blue. The camp began with practices going over game plans and ended with modified scrimmages throughout the weekend. Some games were played at five-on-five, some games were played alternating between power play and penalty kill time during 7:30-long periods.
For both of them, it was their first taste of hockey at the national level.
“This is a big milestone for my hockey career. Even though it is just the selection camp, it is still very meaningful to put on the try-out jersey,” said Virostek.
“It’s been a big honour for me and my family to compete here. It’s something I’ve dreamed about growing up and getting the chance to make the tournament team has been the highlight of my career,” said Wells.
The World Junior A Challenge might not create the same type of buzz as other national junior tournaments, having only been around since the 2006-07 season, but that doesn’t mean there was a shortage of eyeballs watching the teams skate over the weekend.
This camp and tournament have produced current NHL players such as Zach Hyman, Erik Karlsson, Nikita Kucherov, Vladimir Tarasenko, Riley Nash and most recently, the fourth-overall pick from the NHL Entry Draft last summer, Cale Makar.
Scouts from every level, from the WHL to the NHL, packed the small section of bleachers at the Joan Snyder Arena.
Mid-afternoon on Dec. 5, the 60 invitees were trimmed down to the top 40 skaters, who participated in a showcase game to wrap up the camp. Final cuts were made this week as Team Canada West narrowed down its roster for the tournament, which kicks off Dec. 10 at the RECC Arena in Truro, N.S. Team West will open the tournament against the Czech Republic. The tournament will also feature a Team Canada East, Russia, United States and Switzerland. The gold medal game is set for Dec. 16.
Through four days at the selection camp, both former Bisons had been impressive.
“The first thing you notice about Blake is his big body. He likes to have the puck and is a handful on the fore-check. He’s a really good kid that wants to learn and that’s important in these short camps,” said Keillor, who coaches the Grande Prairie Storm of the AJHL. “Hunter is calm and collected in net and doesn’t let the noise bother him. He has tons of great energy and any team would be thrilled to have him.”
The two former Bisons might be rising prospects in the national program, but they certainly haven’t forgotten where they came from.
“Strathmore was a top-tier program last year and had a winning culture. I think being in that program has made the transition to Team Canada easier because it’s a similar feeling about winning here,” said Wells.
“The Bisons really helped out with preparing me for the next level. It’s a huge jump from midget to junior hockey; it’s a lot faster of a game. It really got me ready for that next level of hockey,” said Virostek.
On the morning of Dec. 5, Hockey Canada announced that Wells was released from the program, but Virostek was kept around for the top 40 game and played for Team Red in the White versus Red showcase. He is one of four goaltenders remaining in camp. Hockey Canada made their final cuts that night. To find out if Virostek made the final roster, check out the Hockey Canada website for more information.