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Czeching in at Reid tournament

HC Kometa Brno first European team in 36-year history of St. Albert bantam AAA tournament

By: Jeff Hansen

  |  Posted: Saturday, Dec 28, 2013 06:00 am

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The first European team at the John Reid Memorial Tournament will headline the 36th annual bantam AAA showcase in St. Albert.

HC Kometa Brno of the Czech Republic is the guest of honour at the 16-team tournament, Jan. 16 to 19 at Servus Credit Union Place.

“We’re very fortunate. It certainly helps the profile of the tournament,” said Cam Wietzel, the selection committee chair since 2009. “It also says a lot about the tournament and the fact that it’s well organized. It’s certainly a testament to (tournament chair) Trudy Kueber and the volunteers that it does have that kind of appeal that teams are willing to fly 14 hours to come to a tournament like this.”

Norm Lacombe, who coached the St. Albert Gregg Distributors Sabres at the 2013 tournament, played a major role in bringing the Czechs to St. Albert.

“He took a job this year in the Czech Republic working with the professional team there, the parent team of the team that is coming over. He was familiar with our tournament and thought it would be a good opportunity for the boys there,” Wietzel said. “It took a lot of work but things came together.”

Tournament organizers were notified in June the Czechs wanted in.

“The coach of the Czech team contacted us and said they were interested but we were cautious because you certainly know the teams from western Canada and we have a pretty good handle on how competitive they are and which are the top teams. In the U.S. you have a bit of information about those teams, whereas the Czech team it’s a little tough to judge the level of competition but a couple of their kids were over in camps here and looked to be exceptionally skilled kids. Norm Lacombe also knows the tournament and he expects they will certainly be competitive,” Wietzel said.

HC Kometa Brno (Comet in English), winner of its age division championship in 2013, is coached by Libor Zabransky, who played 40 NHL games with the St. Louis Blues from 1996 to 1998.

Lacombe, the first head coach in St. Albert Steel history, is expected to serve as an assistant coach.

The Czechs are ranked third out of 10 teams in league play.

“They’re playing against older kids, like our bantams playing in the minor midget (15-year-old) league,” Wietzel said.

The Czechs will play one exhibition game – Jan. 14 against the Canadian Athletic Club at 7:15 p.m. at Northstar Hyundai Arena – before making their tournament debut Jan. 16 against the Okanagan Hockey Academy of Penticton (10:45 a.m. at Mark Messier Arena) and the host Sabres (8 p.m. at Northstar Hyundai Arena). The Czechs’ last game before the playoffs is Jan. 17 against the Winnipeg Monarchs (4:45 p.m. at Troy Murray Arena).

It was a no-brainer to schedule the Czechs against the Sabres in what is traditionally the feature game on opening night following the opening ceremonies.

“It’s an opportunity for the St. Albert Sabres’ kids to play against them and it certainly gives the Czech team the opportunity to show their wares,” Wietzel said. “The opening ceremonies’ game is usually one of the better attended games and I’m sure it will be this time too, just for the curiosity to see what the European entry looks like.”

About five years ago an Austrian team coached by St. Albert’s Emanuel Viveiros made inquiries into attending the tournament, but the players’ schooling didn’t permit it.

“They were right in the middle of exams when the tournament was and the kids couldn't get permission to be gone for that long,” Wietzel said.

The Czechs are not the only international team competing for the championship banner. The Los Angeles Jr. Kings, Dallas Stars Elite and Phoenix Jr. Coyotes have also been confirmed for the most prestigious bantam AAA tournament in western Canada.

“The only U.S. team we initially pursued was the Los Angeles team, which is ranked No. 7 in the U.S. right now, which if you consider the number of teams in the U.S is pretty amazing,” Wietzel said. “We asked them and they knew about the tournament and right away they said yes. They were talking about it and it was something that they were considering.”

The Jr. Kings recently merged with the Los Angeles Selects – the 2010 champions were the first United States team to play in the tournament since the 2003 Seattle Sno-Kings – to form the only bantam AAA team in Los Angeles.

Phoenix also competed at the 2011 tournament and the Selects returned in 2012.

“Dallas and Phoenix both called us and said they were interested in participating. We did our homework a little bit and they both looked like they would certainly be competitive teams,” Wietzel said. “It was kind of refreshing that you don't have to chase teams and they’re actually very interested in coming.”

The tournament draw also includes the defending champion North Shore Winter Club Hawks, Burnaby Winter Club Bruins, Pursuit of Excellence (Kelowna), Notre Dame Hounds, SSAC Southgate Lions (three-time defending Alberta Major Bantam Hockey League champions and 2013 western Canadian gold medallists), Lloydminster Heat (No. 1 AMBHL team at 23-1-1), Spruce Grove PAC Saints, Calgary Bisons and Calgary Flames.

“It’s going to be a very interesting tournament. We had four international entries, plus the host team, so there was essentially room for 11 teams and I’m pretty confident we have the 11 best teams in western Canada,” said Wietzel, who works with a committee of five to finalize the team selections by November, with input from AMBHL and Western Hockey League officials.

“The St. Albert Sabres (11-8-3 in the nitro north division) are also doing well in a very tough division. They play the toughest teams in the north in the AMBHL and are extremely competitive.”

The tournament, renamed in Reid’s memory in 2004, is a huge event for WHL scouts checking out draft-eligible bantam players.

A long list of tournament alumni have gone on to play in the NHL.

“It’s the best of the best. When you get to midget AAA hockey, which is a great level of hockey, the top 16-year-old and 17-year-old kids are playing in the WHL or AJHL. Here, you’re getting the top 13- and 14-year-old kids I would say in North America and potentially in the world with so many talented kids coming together,” Wietzel said. “They truly play for the love of the game. There is no money involved. They’re playing and giving it all they've got. To be honest it’s one of the most enjoyable levels of hockey I’ve watched. I’m an Oilers’ season ticket holder, which shouldn't say much, but I go to WHL and AJHL games and I just love bantam AAA hockey. The kids are playing for the right reasons.

“The amazing part is Morgan Reilly played in this tournament less than five years ago (MVP and top defenceman in 2009 with Notre Dame) and he is in the NHL right now. Curtis Lazar (2010 MVP with Kelowna) could be doing something very similar to that, depending on how he does with Ottawa.

“The level of talent at this tournament is just outstanding.”

Visit www.johnreidmemorial.com for schedules and tournament information.


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