The 2019-20 Western Hockey League (WHL) season doesn’t start until September, but for Airdrie’s Jake Neighbours, the hard work in preseason is already underway – the 17-year-old is playing for Canada’s U18 team at the 2019 Hlinka-Gretzky Cup, Aug. 5 to 10 in Slovakia and the Czech Republic.
The left wing, who laces his skates for the Edmonton Oil Kings during the regular season, made the Canada roster after a fine showing at the team’s selection camp in Calgary, July 26 to 30.
“Obviously, it’s an honour,” Neighbours said of cracking the 22-man roster. “Being invited as one of the top 44 players in Canada was an honour to start with, and then to make the final roster was something special.”
Neighbours came into the summer selection camp after impressing during his WHL rookie campaign. He managed 15 goals and 36 points in 63 games, helping the Oil Kings advance all the way to the Eastern Conference finals of the WHL playoffs, before bowing out to the Prince Albert Raiders in game six.
His efforts earned him plenty of plaudits, including the WHL’s Rookie of the Month award in September and October 2018.
Neighbours said the experience he’s gained with the Oil Kings, as well as with Canada’s team at the U17 World Hockey Challenge in November 2018, paid dividends when it came to cracking the Hlinka-Gretzky Cup roster.
“I’d seen most of the players before with the [U17 Team Canada squad], and by playing the western league guys during the regular season,” he said. “But, obviously, the guys had a year to develop and a lot of them got much stronger.
“My first impression was that it’s a good group of guys and they were easy to talk to. Obviously, the competition was really high and the camp was very competitive.”
Now that team Canada is in Europe, the focus will be on bringing home yet another gold medal in the competition that pits eight of the world’s strongest U18 national hockey teams against each other. Canada has a legacy of dominating the yearly tourney, having won 22 of the last 28 Hlinka-Gretzky Cups – including the 2018 event held in Red Deer and Edmonton.
“It’s a tournament where our nation has had a lot of success in the last couple of years,” Neighbours said. “[This year’s team] hopes to make our mark, as well. We’re just focusing on us and not what’s happened in the last couple of years.”
For Canada, the 2019 tournament kicked off in the perfect fashion – the squad opened its round-robin schedule Aug. 5 and 6 with a 6-0 blanking of Finland and an 8-0 thumping of Switzerland. Neighbours played in both games, though didn’t make it onto the scoreboard in either.
Canada ended its preliminary fixtures Aug. 7, after press time, against the Czech Republic.
The semifinals will be held Aug. 8, and the tournament will wrap up Aug. 10. For more information, visit hlinkagretzky.com