Column: Top Prospects Game more than just a regular all-star game

As sports fans, the struggle to genuinely enjoy an all-star game is real.

Look at most of the major sports and the one noticeable factor in each of their all-star festivities is it appears that players aren’t trying.

The NHL didn’t even pick the best players for the game in San Jose (look at snubs like Mark Giordano, Morgan Riley, Mitch Marner and Phil Kessel). The NFL plays the pro bowl (their all-star game) the week before the Super Bowl. Which means the players from the two best teams in the league, who should be there, don’t play either.

Even in baseball, the all-star game slogs on and in the NBA, nobody plays defense so it’s basically just a Harlem Globetrotters showcase.

To find an all-star game of sorts that matters, you might need to wander all the way to the Canadian Hockey League.

Next Wednesday, the top 40 prospects across the CHL will play in the CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game in Red Deer at the Centrium.

In that game, the best players eligible for the 2019 NHL Draft will split into two squads and battle in front of a national TV audience.

While it isn’t exactly an all-star game, it provides a window into the future for major junior hockey fans, on a stage that matters more than most league-best showcases.

That’s because the players who suit up for the top prospects games are hoping this one opportunity is where they grab the attention of NHL scouts and GMs and show them they should be drafted next year.

“Some tremendously talented and skilled players. I’ve participated in the past, it’s a really cool game because you get so much talent and skill on the ice. It’s not like an all-star game,” said Rebels GM/ head coach Brent Sutter, who has been involved with the game since its inception, either from the WHL side or NHL perspective as a GM.

“These kids come and they play hard and they compete. Every NHL team and all their scouting staff and general managers are all here to watch these kids. For the general managers, it might be the only time they get to see them. It’s a showcase for these kids.”

Eventually drafted by the Edmonton Oilers 10th overall at the 2018 NHL Draft, Evan Bouchard was player of the game in a 7-4 at the top prospects game. He had a fantastic year with the London Knights, winning OHL Defenceman of the year and league MVP. While those accolades stand alone, his four-assist performance in the top prospects game, helped solidify his draft position.

Red Deer Rebels representative Oleg Zaytsev will be looking to summon similar magic in 2019. Early on this year, he was considered a potential first-round pick in the 2019 NHL Draft, but more recently is considered a “B” Prospect by NHL Central Scouting. That likely means a second or third round selection. Through 39 games this season, the 17-year-old has 27 points (8 goals, 19 assists).

Still, Sutter believes his centreman has a big opportunity ahead of him next week and hopes he can make the most of it.

“It’s a good measuring stick for Oleg against his peers,” Sutter said.

“It’ll be good for him to go through the experience and you want him to do well. It’s not an easy game and he’s going to have to play hard in it and be a good player in it.”

Email sports tips to Byron Hackett

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