It has become something of a Christmastime tradition for the rookie 16-yr-olds of the Kootenay ICE. Adam Taylor and Andy Thompson played last year, and Dan Blackburn and Duncan Milroy played the year prior and Jarrett Stoll the year before that. This season isn’t any different as a record three members of the ICE first-year player club have been selected to represent their respective regions at the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge held this year in Selkirk and Stonewall, Manitoba. Nigel Dawes (Team Western), Dale Mahovsky and Bryan Bridges (Team Pacific) will all be competing for the gold medal signifying the best 16-yr-old players on the planet the week of Dec. 29 – Jan 4.
The tournament is one of the most heavily scouted by NHL talent finders – a fact made more clear because the players at the World Junior Hockey Tournament have all, for the most part been drafted. A prospect that now makes the tournament that much more important for the NHL possibilities of the three players.
For first year goaltender Bryan Bridges, it’s a pressure that he tries not to focus on. “Yeah, but you know there’s going to be some pressure with all the media, TV and scouts,” said Bridges before the Christmas break. “I don’t know, I guess all I can do is play my best and hope the scouts like what they see.”
Dawes sees it somewhat different. For him he’ll play it almost identical to what it looks like when he’s playing at the Cranbrook Rec/Plex, that is, just have some fun. “Not really,” said Dawes of being under a microscope. “I’m sure when I get out there I’ll be a little nervous and stuff but you just got to go out there and play your game.
“As long as you’re having fun, you’ve got to play your best and pretty much at least enjoy yourself while you’re there because it’s a once in lifetime chance.”
This year however the ICE contribution is rather significant. After doing away with the policy of playing the young rookies only sparingly in years past, this season all three players have played significant roles in the fortunes of the ICE. Taking them out of the line-up for six to seven games won’t be as easy as it’s been in years past. It’s a situation thanks in large part to the quality and talent of aforementioned players.
That being said, the fortunes of the three rookies have been going in somewhat different directions. Mahovsky’s and Dawes’ role has stayed relatively the same over the course of the season so far – mostly third and fourth line duty with some second line and power-play time. Bridges has seen his role drop since the ICE acquired overage goaltender B.J. Boxma but he and his compatriots remain focused however, ready to accept whatever role the team hands them – at least for their rookie season. After that, all bets are off. “Obviously I would like more playing time,” said Bridges of his solidified backup role since the return of Boxma. “If I have to take on the 16-yr-old role, then I have to, but I’m not going to settle at that. I’m going to keep pushing and see how many games I can get in.”
“He’s (coach McGill) just said that I’ll know my schedule ahead of time and what teams I’m playing and B.J. (Boxma) will take the lion’s share of the games, but I’ll just be ready in case something goes wrong.” At the other end of the spectrum is Dawes who, although hasn’t matched the scoring tear he went on in the preseason, is still matching any expectations ICE management might’ve had about him. “I’m happy with the ice-time I’m getting, it’s a lot more than I expected,” said Dawes just before leaving to the Under-17 tournament. “Every time you play you always want to be out there all the time, as much as you can.
“Sometimes you have an off-night but most of the time you usually play the same amount – I want to be a high-scoring forward and contribute as much as I can. I had an injury so I’ve been out for a while and it’s kind of been hard to get back in the groove but I’ll try to this weekend to get ready for the tournament and also the second half (of the season).”
Dawes, a Winnipeg native, will be only hours up the road so he’ll have the family and home-team fan support that perhaps Mahovsky and Bridges won’t. Nevertheless the teammates won’t hesitate if they meet each other at the tournament. “I’m sure it’ll be pretty fun. There’ll be a grudge match going on for sure but it’s all fun,” said Bridges. Dawes doesn’t think it’ll be too big a deal if he meets his teammates in the tournament playoffs and brushes off any advantage he might have as a shooter on his goaltending teammate. “Probably, a little bit,” said Dawes. “But he’ll (Bryan) know my weaknesses too and know where I’m going to shoot. I think it all comes down to whoever wins is going to have the last laugh.”
The tournament consists of five teams from Canada, Team Pacific (B.C. & Alta.), Team Western (Sask. & Man.), Team Ontario, Team Quebec and Team Atlantic. Also attending will be five international squads, the Czech Republic, Germany, Russia, Finland and the U.S., the defending champions. Mahovsky, Dawes and Bridges aren’t expected back in the ICE lineup until the second week of January.