The defending champions are back, half the field are dedicated academies and the host team is in the midst of another successful campaign.
Add it all up, and the 34th annual Kelowna International Elite Midget Tournament, sponsored by The Daily Courier, is destined to be a competitive and exciting showcase of hockey talent. The tournament, which runs Jan. 9-13 at Memorial and Rutland arenas, will feature 12 teams, including an intriguing new entry - the Compete Rams, an academy based in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho.
"They have a very interesting team, possibly one to watch," said KIMMT team co-ordinator Tony Ryder. "Cam Severson is the coach of that team and he used to play with a couple NHL teams (Anaheim and Columbus) and played in Europe as well."
Last year witnessed an all-academy championship game, with both the champion Wenatchee Wild and runner-up Calgary Edge returning this year. The Wild, however, have tweaked their program from under-18 to under-17 players and their results have reflected that this season.
"When you talk to them, they always tell you 'we're not as good as we were last year,'" KIMMT chairman Jim Shedden said of Wenatchee's chances at repeating. "But nothing is proven until we're on the ice, so we'll just wait and see."
The Edge, meanwhile, is expected to challenge for the KIMMT title again after coming close on a couple occasions, including a lopsided loss to the Okanagan (4A) Rockets in the 2010 final. That Edge squad was led by defenceman Mathew Dumba, now of the WHL's Red Deer Rebels and a first-round NHL draft pick who could represent Canada at this year's world junior championship in Russia.
"They've been bridesmaids a couple of times," Shedden said of the Edge. "They've been in the semis every year and made the final again last year, so those guys have a bee in their bonnet and they really want to win."
Another team that both Shedden and Ryder mentioned as potential favourites - the Thunder Bay Kings, who are no stranger to the tournament and won it all in 2009.
"I've got a real soft spot for Thunder Bay; just a great club and they've supported this tournament for years," Shedden said. "The competition is so equal, but my thinking is maybe Thunder Bay and Calgary (in the
To which Ryder added: "On paper, it's a crapshoot at the moment . . . but I'd say Thunder Bay has a good chance this year."
Another Ontario entry, the 2008 champion Burlington Eagles, are making their return to the tournament, playing out of The Daily Courier Division along with the host Fripp Warehousing Junior Rockets, Okanagan Hockey Academy of Penticton, Notre Dame Hounds, Semiahmoo Ravens and the aforementioned Rams.
The Coast Capri Division is comprised of Wenatchee, Calgary, Thunder Bay, the Winfield-based Pursuit of Excellence, Surrey Thunder and Ridge Meadows Rustlers.
The host Rockets, who will face the Rams following opening ceremonies on Jan. 9, will have their work cut out for them as always. The 3A Rockets have never won their home tournament, but often hold their own against higher-calibre opposition.
"They are fortunate to have excellent coaching (Eric Blais) and the team is playing great. At their level, they are one of the best teams in B.C.," Shedden said. "They are going to see some of their competitors here, but for all of these tier-1 B.C. teams, jumping up to the KIMMT level is a big jump and a tough, tough test for them.
"Typically, they struggle, but hopefully they come away from it with a really positive experience. I hope the Fripp's boys have a great tournament and they walk away from it, like my kid (Darrell) did 14 years ago, with a big smile on their face."
There will be no shortage of storylines, such as Severson and another POE player with Swiss roots according to Ryder. The academies - all modeled after Notre Dame to some degree - will be worth the price of admission as well, said Shedden.
"Hockey's changed so radically, just in the last 10 years," he said. "It's a big business. These kids are exceptionally well coached and they are playing a lot of hockey. The academy kids are on the ice every day and it shows when they come to tournaments like this - they know how to play the game."