Bob Nicholson hopes a rare best-on-best men’s tournament, and the Gretzky brand, will pull people into Edmonton’s Rogers Place to watch hockey in the middle of summer.
The Hlinka Gretzky Cup, an annual tournament of the world’s top under-18 players, starts Monday in Edmonton and Red Deer, Alta. The rebranded event was formerly named the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament in honour of the iconic player and coach from the former Czechoslovakia and was co-hosted by Slovakia and the Czech Republic over the last 21 years.
Canada opens Monday against Switzerland at Rogers Place. The Czechs, Slovaks, Finland, Sweden, Russia and the United States round out the field. The gold-medal game is Aug. 11 in Edmonton.
One of Nicholson’s last acts as president of Hockey Canada before leaving in 2014 was to negotiate a revenue-sharing deal with the Czech and Slovak federations to bring the tournament to Canada in 2018, 2020 and 2022.
“I think it’s a property that will grow once Canadians see what it is,” said Nicholson, now chief executive officer of the Oilers Entertainment Group.
Hlinka won three world championships and Olympic silver and bronze medals playing for Czechoslovakia.
He also played for the Vancouver Canucks from 1981 to 1983 and coached the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2000-01. Hlinka died in a car accident in 2004 at the age of 54.
Hockey star and Edmonton Oilers vice chairman Wayne Gretzky agreed to lend his name to this tournament and championship trophy.
“You notice the name is Hlinka Gretzky, and that’s the way Wayne wanted it, which I think shows the character of Wayne too,” Nicholson said.
“He knows what his name brings, but he didn’t want to diminish the name Hlinka.”
With the NHL no longer participating in the Winter Olympics, there are few international tournaments where all the world’s top male players of any age compete against each other.
NHL playoffs conflict with the International Ice Hockey Federation’s annual men’s world championship, as does the Canadian Hockey League playoffs with the IIHF’s world men’s under-18 championships every spring.
There are always big-name players missing from the midwinter world under-20 championships because NHL teams tend not to release their teenagers for that tournament.
The Hlinka Gretzky Cup, which has been held under various names dating back to 1991, hasn’t been similarly encumbered in the middle of summer.
Canada has once previously hosted the tournament in 1996 in Nelson and Castlegar, B.C.
Canadian teams have won gold 21 of 27 times.
The tournament has never been an IIHF-sanctioned event, but it’s become a fixture on the international hockey calendar particularly for NHL scouts.
Seventy-seven players in last year’s tournament in Breclav, Czech Republic, were drafted by NHL teams in June. Seven were top-10 selections. This year’s tournament features players born in 2001.
“These are the very top players who are going to be in the 2019 draft,” Hockey Canada’s vice-president of events Dean McIntosh said. “I don’t think the public is aware of that.
“People are going to start to realize what this event means, so it’s an education process.
“Wayne’s been very involved to this point. He’s a big part of this and him giving his name is a huge step that we thought was very important to North-Americanize the event.”
Hockey Canada projects the tournament will have a regional economic impact of $5-million based on events of similar scope.
TSN will broadcast 10 games of the tournament, so it gives Hockey Canada another television property to sell to sponsors.
For the Oilers, it gets people in Rogers Place seats midsummer.
The most northerly NHL franchise can be a tougher sell to free agents choosing a team, so it helps the Oilers to have dozens of top prospects experience Edmonton’s posh arena that opened in 2016.
The tournament is also a tie-in with the world under-20 championship starting Dec. 26 in Victoria and Vancouver, as some players on Canada’s team in Edmonton could also wear the Maple Leaf there.
A “Centre Ice Summit” will be held alongside the tournament bringing arena operators, hockey officials, NHL, IIHF and Western Hockey League representatives to the city, Nicholson said.
Attendance expectations are modest for this year, however. Red Deer’s games will be in the new, 1,400-seat Servus Arena, which is smaller than the 7,100-seat Enmax Centrium.
The upper bowl of Rogers Place will be draped over and the hope is Canada’s pool games there draw between 3,000 and 4,500, McIntosh said.