This time of year, the thoughts of Canadian hockey fans center around the annual tradition that is the World Junior Championship. For a few weeks every season, the best junior prospects in the country are put in the spotlight and are exposed to the larger hockey world for likely the first time in their careers.
Most of the top talent on Team Canada typically comes from the ‘major junior’ Canadian Hockey League, but the ‘Junior A’ Canadian Junior Hockey League has been represented on Canada’s roster in five straight tournaments dating back to 2016. These are players who were either playing for their Junior A club when they departed for the World Juniors, or had previously played at least one full season for a CJHL club and had since gone on to play NCAA D-I in the United States.
Four of the six Junior A products to suit up for Canada between 2016 and 2020 have been products of the Alberta Junior Hockey League. That league has a chance to be represented again in 2021 by selection camp participant Dylan Holloway who starred with the Okotoks Oilers before moving on to the University of Wisconsin and becoming the Edmonton Oilers’ first-round draft pick in 2020.
The major junior leagues carry a higher profile, deservedly so with their depth of prospect talent, but the caliber of play found at the Junior A level is certainly worthy of respect, headlined by those who have played for Canada at the world’s premier annual junior showcase.
Here is a close up on the players who have come through the Junior A ranks to represent Canada in the past five World Junior Championships, and an update on where they are today.
2016 – Brandon Hickey
The trendsetter, Brandon Hickey, manned the blue line for Canada at the 2016 World Juniors in Finland. The Leduc, AB native played two seasons (2012-14) in the AJHL for the powerhouse Spruce Grove Saints, chipping in five goals and 29 points in 104 games for the Saints and helping them to consecutive appearances in the league final.
The Saints, who were led by head coach Jason McKee who would later become bench boss of the Vancouver Giants of the Western Hockey League, fell in five games to the Brooks Bandits in 2012-13 before sweeping the Drumheller Dragons for the 2014 AJHL title.
Shortly after his final season in Spruce Grove, the Calgary Flames selected Hickey in the third round of the 2014 NHL Draft. He went on to play four seasons (2014-18) for Boston University, with his World Juniors appearance taking place during his second season of NCAA hockey.
At the tournament, Hickey was held pointless with a plus-one rating and Canada fell to the host Finnish squad in the quarterfinals.
Hickey capped his NCAA career by captaining the 2017-18 squad that featured Brady Tkachuk, who would go on to become the fourth overall pick in the NHL Draft by the Ottawa Senators, and goaltender Jake Oettinger, the Dallas Stars first-rounder in 2017.
For the past two seasons (2018-20), Hickey has been playing in the American Hockey League with the Rochester Americans.
2017 – Tyson Jost and Dante Fabbro
The duo of centerman Tyson Jost and defenseman Dante Fabbro cracked Canada’s roster as alumni of the British Columbia Hockey League for the 2017 World Juniors in Montreal, QC and Toronto, ON.
Jost, a 2016 Colorado Avalanche first-round pick, starred for two seasons (2014-16) with the Penticton Vees before playing at the University of North Dakota for one season (2016-17). The centreman racked up 65 goals and 149 points in 94 games (2013-16) with Penticton, highlighted by 42 goals and 104 points in 2015-16.
Fabbro, the Nashville Predators first-round pick in 2016, was a teammate of Jost for those two seasons after suiting up for a pair of games for the Langley Rivermen in 2013-14. The Coquitlam, BC native notched 18 goals and 100 points in 89 games with Penticton before going on to play three seasons (2016-19) at Boston University, where he was a teammate of Hickey.
At the 2017 World Juniors, Jost managed a goal and four points in seven games, while Fabbro chalked up one assist. Canada reached the gold medal game, but fell 5-4 in a shootout to the United States.
Jost made his NHL debut with Colorado later that season and has been a regular in the three seasons since.
2018 – Dante Fabbro and Cale Makar
Canada again featured a pair of CJHL products in the 2018 tournament, this time with two defensemen including one familiar face.
Fabbro returned for a second shot at gold in Buffalo, NY, and was joined on the back end by Cale Makar, the fourth overall pick of the Colorado Avalanche in the 2017 NHL Draft.
A Calgary, AB native, Makar had torn up the AJHL for two seasons with Brooks (2015-17). In 111 games, he amassed 35 goals and 135 points, helping the Bandits win consecutive AJHL championships.
Makar went on to play two seasons (2017-19) at UMass-Amherst, totalling 21 goals and 70 points in 75 games.
The 2018 World Juniors were Makar’s coming-out party under the international stage, as he racked up three goals and eight points in seven games, helping Canada capture gold.
Fabbro debuted in the NHL with Nashville in 2018-19 and became a regular the next season. Makar meanwhile, made his NHL debut with the Avalanche in the 2019 playoffs, and then won the Calder Trophy as the Rookie of the Year in 2019-20.
2019 – Ian Mitchell
Rearguard Ian Mitchell went the Junior A route before representing Canada when the World Juniors headed west to Vancouver and Victoria, BC.
The native of Calahoo, AB was in his second season at the University of Denver at the time but had previously played two seasons (2015-17) in the AJHL with Spruce Grove. In 109 games, Mitchell tallied 14 goals and 64 points with the Saints and helped them to a league finals appearance in 2015-16.
After his second season with Spruce Grove, Mitchell became a second-round pick of the Chicago Blackhawks in the 2017 NHL Draft, and then headed to the NCAA for three seasons (2017-20).
At the 2019 World Juniors, Mitchell contributed a goal and three points, but Canada’s tournament came to an early end with a 2-1 quarterfinal overtime loss to Finland.
Elsewhere in the 2019 tournament, Matthew Verboon -a sniper with the Salmon Arm Silverbacks of the BCHL- suited up for Switzerland.
2020 – Jacob Bernard-Docker
The run of Junior A defensemen continued for Canada at the 2020 World Juniors in the Czech Republic.
Jacob Bernard-Docker, the Ottawa Senators first-round pick from 2018 made the squad out of the University of North Dakota after previously playing two seasons (2016-18) with the Okotoks Oilers in the AJHL. In 103 games with Okotoks, Bernard-Docker scored 27 goals and 63 points. He was named the CJHL’s top defenseman after his second season in 2017-18.
The native of Canmore, AB found the back of the net once at the World Juniors, as Canada won gold with a 4-3 win over Russia.
THW’s David Crosby wrote about Senators prospects Bernard-Docker and Jake Sanderson, the fifth-overall pick in the 2020 NHL Draft, patrolling the blue line together at North Dakota.
Meanwhile, the BCHL’s Meritt Centennials were represented by Slovakian forward Daniel Tkac.
2021 Hopeful – Dylan Holloway
The 14th overall pick of the Edmonton Oilers in the 2020 NHL Draft, Dylan Holloway, has a chance to make it two straight World Juniors to include an Okotoks alumnus.
Prior to arriving at Wisconsin in 2019-20, Holloway enjoyed a decorated two seasons (2017-19) in the AJHL, scoring 51 goals and 115 points in 81 games with Okotoks. He was the AJHL’s Most Valuable Player and CJHL Player of the Year in 2018-19 after posting 40 goals and 88 points, and also competed in the Hlinka Gretzky Cup.
In his first season at Wisconsin in 2019-20, the gifted forward netted eight goals and 17 points in 35 games. He had a pair of goals in two games played this season prior to Canada’s selection camp.
Holloway seems likely to make the roster for the tournament and be relied upon to generate offense for Canada.
Everybody, fans and players alike, are surely clamoring for the return of meaningful hockey with the CHL and CJHL leagues having yet to begin their seasons, or having difficulty keeping their seasons going due to the pandemic and related health and safety measures.
Unfortunately, the same issues have found their way into Canada’s selection camp in Red Deer, AB. Following positive COVID tests among Canadian players, the camp is currently in a 14-day quarantine in Red Deer, AB, raising questions around the rest of Canada’s evaluation process and the tournament as a whole.
Obviously, health and safety are paramount, but it would be a tremendous lift to many if the 2021 World Juniors are able to successfully play out and give the world’s best junior prospects – including another former Junior A standout – their chance to shine.
Jonathan covers the Saskatoon Blades and the Victoria Royals of the WHL. He has extensive experience in hockey and sports journalism and broadcasting. This includes bylines at Sports Spectrum, Toronto Blue Jays, Victoria Grizzlies, DUBNetwork as well as a long-time role with the Canadian Baseball Network.