© Quebec Major Junior Hockey League
Mitchell Balmas was the Charlottetown Islanders first-round pick of the 2014 QMJHL Draft in Sherbrooke, Que.
CALGARY – It didn't take long for "the Canadian way'' to become a mantra at Hockey Canada's massive under-17 men's hockey camp.
The slogan is on the back of every red T-shirt worn by the 108 players circulating through the Markin MacPhail Centre on Calgary's west side. The phrase is drilled into their heads on and off the ice by their coaches and Hockey Canada staff.
"They use that term almost in every sentence,'' Toronto defenceman Jakob Chychrun said Wednesday. "They really teach us all to be young men.
"They talk about professionalism, respect and even the little things like cleaning the table up after lunch.''
Part of the revamp of the national under-17 program was summoning this vast group of players born in 1998 to learn early what Hockey Canada expects and wants from players who wear the Maple Leaf. The nine-day camp ends Tuesday.
"We've had a lot of lectures on the Canadian way and what that means to us and how we have to respect it,'' defenceman Sean Day said.
"That's one of the most used words I've heard in the last two days is 'respect'. Just having pride in your nation and respecting everyone who is involved and respecting your opponents.''
Their days have been filled with fitness and hockey skills testing as well as classroom seminars on nutrition, mental training and media relations. They're learning how to warm up and cool down properly for workouts and games in order to avoid injury and perform their best.
Players from Duncan, B.C., to Mount Pearl, N.L., have been divided into six teams with their own coaches and support staff. They start playing games against each other Thursday.
"The message to them is there's a way we do things here,'' said Scott Salmond, Hockey Canada's vice-president of hockey operations. "What we're trying to teach them in the different areas, we're going to have a better chance to win.
"We want them leaving here knowing what the Canadian way is, that they're going to play hard, they're committed players, they're character players, they accept their roles. The Canadian way was really borne out of the Olympic team and the performance that they had in Sochi, everything from how that team performed to how they prepared.
"It's playing hard, it's playing with character and when other teams push, we push back harder. Those are the messages we're trying to give every day, all day.
The Markin MacPhail Centre will bulge with Canadian hockey prospects when another 44 arrive Friday for the under-18 men's selection camp.
A team of the best 22 players born in 1997 will be chosen to play for Canada at the annual Ivan Hlinka international tournament Aug. 11 to 16 in Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Canada has won the tournament six consecutive years.
The presence of the under-18 players is another way of driving home the message to the under-17 players what's required to play for Canada.
"We want those kids to see the next level for them,'' Salmond said.
The World Under-17 Hockey Challenge has traditionally been held in late December during its 22 years, but the event will be played Oct. 31 to Nov. 8 this year in Sarnia, Ont.
Instead of five regional teams representing Atlantic, Quebec, Ontario, West and Pacific, Canada will enter three teams mixing players from different regions.
So Canadians will now play in the under-17 tournament under the banner of their country, and not their geographical region. There will be more competition to play in the tournament as 66 players from across the country will be named to those three squads.
Toronto's Chychrun and Day played for Ontario at the most recent under-17 tournament held in Sydney, N.S., under the old format. Forward Mitchell Balmas of Sydney represented Team Atlantic and Edmonton forward Tyler Benson played for Team Pacific.
Chychrun was the first overall pick in this year's Ontario Hockey League draft by the Sarnia Sting. Benson went first in last year's Western Hockey League draft to the Vancouver Giants.
Day is the only player invited to this under-17 camp who played major junior hockey last season. He was an underage defenceman for the OHL's Mississauga Steelheads.
Balmas was a first-round pick of the QMJHL's Charlottetown Islanders this year. This is his first trip to Western Canada and his camp roommates are from Ontario and Quebec.
Mixing the players pushes them out of their comfort zone. Where once they compared themselves to players from within their own province, they now measure themselves against their counterparts in the rest of the country.
"You see how you rank with the other guys all across Canada and what you need to work on,'' Balmas said. "You kind of have to bring all your stuff because you don't know who you're playing against or who you're playing with. You have to learn and adapt.''