KENT — Those trumpeting this region’s hockey scene usually point to the longstanding presence of the Seattle Thunderbirds and Everett Silvertips major junior teams.
The problem was always the elite levels beneath those Western Hockey League (WHL) squads, especially at the formative Bantam AAA ages 13 and 14 where homegrown products have been forced to leave Washington to play elsewhere. But organizers of an upcoming WHL U.S. Challenge Cup bantam tournament here — the largest amateur hockey showcase in the Seattle region in nearly 30 years — hope it grows participation numbers to match this region’s blossoming talent as it awaits the NHL’s arrival in October 2021.
“I think it’s really going to elevate the game in this area,” said WHL commissioner Ron Robison, who on Tuesday night joined officials from NHL Seattle and the City of Kent in announcing the Feb. 20-23 tournament at the ShoWare Center and Kent Valley Ice Centre. “I think when you see the caliber of teams that we’ve brought — and Seattle’s going to be one of the teams playing in this event — it’s going to give people a good indication of what’s required to improve the caliber.”
This region hasn’t staged a major hockey tournament like this since the Thunderbirds were the host team at the 1992 Memorial Cup, the Canadian Hockey League’s junior championship.
The Challenge Cup will feature 12 of the top-ranked Bantam teams from the Western United States and Canada — including a local Seattle Junior all-star 14U squad — that will compete Feb. 20-23 at the two Kent arenas to help promote the sport at a grassroots level.
Organized by NHL Seattle, the Thunderbirds and the Kent Valley Hockey Association, the tournament features a who’s-who of U.S. Bantam hockey for anybody this side of North Dakota. The Dallas Stars Elite ‘05, Los Angeles Jr. Kings, Phoenix Jr. Coyotes, San Diego Saints, San Jose Jr. Sharks, Team Alaska and the hometown Seattle side represent the tourney’s American contingent.
From Canada, they’ll have British Columbia squads Delta Hockey Academy Green, the Greater Vancouver Canadians, Okanagan Rockets, West Van Warriors and Yale Academy.
The U.S. teams have produced their share of NHL players, with onetime Spokane Chiefs star Kailer Yamamoto, now with the Edmonton Oilers, having played bantam with L.A., as did Eric Comrie of the Detroit Red Wings and Chase De Leo of the Anaheim Ducks. Dallas is also formidable, having graduated brothers Seth and Caleb Jones to the Columbus Blue Jackets and Oilers, respectively.
Now-retired onetime New Jersey Devils star Scott Gomez, who played his junior hockey for the Tri-City Americans, is a Team Alaska bantam graduate.
NHL Seattle senior manager Dan Leiweke said Tuesday the tournament is part of the team’s goal to boost hockey at all levels locally ahead of the expansion franchise’s October 2021 debut.
Bantam-level elite hockey has grown tremendously in the region within the past decade, to the point where Seattle Junior has done well against recent cross-border opponents. The Challenge Cup will be a much bigger test, but Thunderbirds general manager Bill La Forge — who grew up in Alberta and spent years scouting bantam-level prospects — said the talent gap with other regions has definitely been reduced.
“I think it’s changing, it’s closing,” La Forge said. “I used to watch tons of games at the bantam level and there are a lot of highly skilled players from both countries now. An event like this is going to show that. You’ll see how good they are.”
And perhaps inspire some young local hockey players to want to follow in those skates.
“You aspire to want to play in an event like this,” he said. “If you look back in California when hockey went there, the best player coming out of that area wasn’t even born when Wayne Gretzky went there (in 1988).
“And we might be in the same situation here right now. Where the best player ever to come out of Seattle might not even be born yet. So, we’re building the game up so that player has aspirations to shoot for.”