Red Deer Rebels defenceman Alex Petrovic will have a distinct advantage over the vast majority of his teammates when the Western Hockey League club opens training camp on Aug. 23 at the Centrium.
The Edmonton native will definitely come into camp in game shape after competing in the 2009 Memorial of Ivan Hlinka Tournament in Slovakia and the Czech Republic as a member of the Canadian under-18 summer team. The six-foot-four, 195-pound rearguard was named to the national squad on Tuesday following a four-day selection camp in Calgary.
“It’s really amazing. I’m going over there to represent my country and it’s just a privilege and an honour to play for the Canadian team,” Petrovic said Wednesday.
Petrovic was one of 22 players to make the grade and one of seven defencemen selected from the list of 12 candidates.
“I was a bit shaky at the start but as the camp went on I kind of picked it up and proved myself,” he said.
The 17-year-old made some major strides as a WHL rookie last season and feels stronger and faster than ever after two months of core training. The extra work, he insisted, won’t necessarily give him an advantage over other top-flight players; he’s simply keeping up with the Jones’s.
“Everyone now is working out in the summer and working harder to become better hockey players,” he noted.
The Ivan Hlinka Tournament is slated for Aug. 11-15 and the Canadian team will play pre-tournament games on Friday versus Slovakia and Sunday against the United States. Canada has taken top honours in the event four of the past five years.
Rebels head coach Jesse Wallin fully expected that Petrovic, who played with Team Pacific in the World Under 17 Challenge last winter, would earn a spot on the national team.
“He obviously had a very good camp, which isn’t surprising,” said Wallin, who twice played in the world junior championship with Canada. “It will be a great experience for him, especially coming into the new season.
“Alex will go over there and get introduced to international hockey as a member of Team Canada. It’s exciting for him and exciting for us as an organization.”
l Wallin is eagerly awaiting training camp and insisted that the returning players are equally excited about the prospect of getting back to work. The Rebels’ season ended on March 15 when the club failed to qualify for the WHL playoffs for a second consecutive year.
“It feels like it’s been a long time since we’ve played hockey and the players are really looking forward to getting back on the ice,” said Wallin. “I’m certainly feeling that way as well. July tends to be your summer and then August hits and you’re back into the hockey mode. At this point you’re just kind of waiting for it to get here. I know our guys are excited about getting back here and everybody is optimistic and looking forward to the new season.”
l The Rebels’ two selections in this years’ Canadian Hockey League import draft — Swedish forward John Persson and Czech defenceman Jindra Barak — will both be in camp, Wallin noted.
“Persson is all set up and we’re still waiting for the paper work (release) for Barak,” said the Rebels bench boss.
“But they’re both committed to coming and we’ll get them here for training camp. They’ll hit the ice and we’ll see what we’ve got.”
With just five returning defencemen, Barak will get at least a long look in camp and through the exhibition season. Persson will compete with 10 returning forwards as well as the recently-acquired Nathan Green, although Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, the first overall pick in the 2008 WHL bantam draft, is a lock and fellow 16-year-old rookie Daulton Siwak and 17-year-old Jordan Neduzak are front-runners in the race for regular employment.
Neduzak scored 16 goals in 44 games with the Winkler Flyers of the Manitoba Junior League last season and Rebels scouts are confident he can contribute at the next level.
“He’ll be in the mix,” said Wallin. “He’s a guy we think should be ready to play. We have high hopes for him.”
In addition, Brett Miller, 18, will return to training camp after being reassigned to Battlefords of the Saskatchewan Junior League early last season, and the coaching staff hasn’t given up on getting Curtis McKenzie into a Rebels jersey.
McKenzie was selected in the fifth round of the 2006 WHL bantam draft but elected to pursue a U.S. college scholarship while playing with the Penticton Vees of the B.C. Hockey League. The six-foot-one, 190-pound native of Golden, B.C., led the Vees in scoring last season with 64 points (30-34) in 53 games, earned an NCAA scholarship to Miami Ohio and was picked by the Dallas Stars in the sixth round of this year’s NHL entry draft.
“We’re still holding out hope that he’ll come and he hasn’t entirely ruled it out,” said Wallin. “We’re really hoping to get him here.
“I know he would be a great addition to our team. He’s built for this league and the style of play. Curtis has been drafted and it would be great to see him develop in our league before going on to play pro hockey. I think he’s well suited for our league and would probably be among our top six forwards.”
• Nugent-Hopkins raised more than a few eyebrows when he turned down an invitation to the B.C. Hockey under-17 camp held in Nanaimo last week.
The multi-talented centre attended last year’s camp as a 15-year-old and might have been named to the B.C. half of Team Pacific for the World Under-17 Challenge if those in charge wanted to buck tradition and go with an underage player. In the end, Nugent-Hopkins wasn’t selected, but insisted on Wednesday that last year’s disappointment had nothing to do with his decision to stay home this year.
“They (B.C. under-17 coaches) didn’t tell me anything last year other than they wouldn’t be taking me,” he said from his home in Burnaby, B.C. “I just decided this year that instead of going to their camp I could get in an extra week of training (in preparation for the 2009-10 WHL season). More or less, that’s what it was, along with the fact that I played a lot of hockey last season.”
Nugent-Hopkins contacted the Rebels for advice while trying to decide whether to attend the Nanaimo camp.
“Because he played so much last winter and the (B.C. under-17) camp is a longer camp, it just wasn’t something he wanted to commit to,” said Wallin. “We discussed it a couple of times and we told him we’d support whatever decision he made.”
Nugent-Hopkins is under the impression that he may still be one of the 11 B.C. players selected for Team Pacific. A total of 21 B.C. players were short-listed following the Nanaimo camp.
“I’ve been told I can still play (for Team Pacific) but I’m not sure what I’m going to do,” he said.
• The first-ever Western Branch Challenge will be staged at the Red Deer Arena Oct. 28 to Nov. 1.
The four-team tournament will feature the premier under-16 players from each of the four western provinces and will be co-hosted by the WHL and Alberta Hockey.
“From what I understand it will be a bit of a showcase for these kids, almost a pre-cursor to the older provincial programs,” said Wallin.