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The WHL and Thunderbirds kick off U.S. Challenge Cup Friday morning

The first ever U.S. Challenge Cup is up for grabs at the ShoWare Center this weekend. (Brian Liesse)

KENT – The future of hockey congregated at the accesso ShoWare Center Thursday night for a banquet to kick off the inaugural U.S. Challenge Cup.

The tournament drops the puck Friday morning and features 12 top-end Bantam programs from the western United States and Canada and is organized by the Western Hockey League along with the Seattle Thunderbirds.

“This is going to be a very unique experience for these players,” WHL commissioner Ron Robison said. “They’ve really never got this treatment before. To play in a facility like this…we’re just trying to make sure that these players get the highest level of competition. These are the top Bantam teams in this region, we’re looking forward to this weekend.”

Players in this tournament are 14-years-old and will be eligible for the WHL’s first-ever U.S. Prospect Draft in March. They are eligible to play in the WHL full time when they turn 16-years-old and if good enough, will be able to be selected in the 2024 NHL Draft.

“There will be some players in this tournament that will play in the NHL, there’s no doubt about that,” Seattle Thunderbirds General Manager Bil La Forge said.

NHL Seattle, along with VisitKent.com, is sponsoring the tournament that will feature 24 games starting Friday morning and concluding Sunday afternoon. The games will mostly be played at the ShoWare Center with a few games taking place at Kent Valley Ice.

“We’re thrilled to do it and proud to stand next to (the WHL) tonight,” NHL Seattle CEO Tod Leiweke said prior to the banquet. “It’s not only good for the community but it’s good for our soul. It reminds us of why we’re doing this and why we’re on this journey.”

Leiweke has repeatedly talked about how the NHL team wants to work with local hockey associations and teams in order to be an additive to the hockey in the region.

NHL Seattle recently was a sponsor of the Thunderbirds Hockey Challenge to raise $200,000 for the Ronald McDonald House and this weekend’s tournament is the next step in that direction.

“There was hockey played here for a long time before we came,” Leiweke said. “We’re not here to dominate, we’re actually here to fit in and help grow. I made a commitment to (Ron Robison) about how we’re going to do that. We have five teams in our region, four in the state of Washington, one in Portland. We’re deeply committed to it.

“If the game doesn’t grow and these teams don’t do better and these young kids playing Bantam don’t have friends saying ‘we want to play to’, then shame on us.”

Along with growing the game locally, the Challenge Cup is a chance For the WHL to recruit more U.S. born players into the league.

“This is really designed to make sure our teams have an opportunity to see how good the talent is in the United States,” Robison said. “We’ve had a U.S. prospects camp for many years in Anaheim but the one thing the parents kept saying to us is that they’ve never seen a WHL game.

“All those players are going to be our guest to Saturday’s game for the best rivalry, arguably, in the Western Hockey League, the Seattle Thunderbirds and Portland Winterhawks. All the players will be attending, and I think it will be a special night.”

Seven of the 12 teams playing this weekend are from the United States. The Dallas Stars Elite, Los Angeles Jr. Kings, Phoenix Jr. Coyotes, San Diego Saints, San Jose Jr. Sharks, Team Alaska, and Seattle Junior 14U will be competing.

Thunderbirds rookie Mekai Sanders is an American player in the league already. He played for Seattle Junior before going to play two years with Detroit Compuware, where he was drafted in the ninth round of the 2018 Bantam Draft by the Thunderbirds.

He was aware of what the WHL had to offer thanks to growing up in Gig Harbor but thinks that the league could use more exposure to American players, many of whom choose to go the NCAA route.

“When I was playing in Michigan, the college option was really introduced,” Sanders said. “Over here, in Washington, it was always the Western League. It was 50-50 on which route I wanted to go but I always wanted to play for Seattle, so it turned out to be the Western League. I think bringing them all here to see a game and introduce them to what the WHL is all about will be good for them.”

Holding an elite tournament in a WHL facility will be a good recruiting tool.

It will give the players a chance to see what resources the WHL has to offer and all the players will attend Saturday’s Thunderbirds game against the Portland Winterhawks. That game will have a packed house and be televised locally.

Not a bad way to impress a young hockey player.

The stands at these games will be littered with scouts from all 22 WHL clubs as they prepare for the U.S. draft in March and the Bantam Draft in May. Along with the U.S. teams, there will be five top Canadian teams in action.

Hailing from British Columbia the tournament will see Delta Hockey Academy Green, the Greater Vancouver Canadians, Okanagan Rockets, West Van Warriors and Yale Academy on the ice.

While each team has talented prospects, there are a couple of elite players to keep an eye on.

Delta Academy features defenseman Lukas Dragicevic (27 games, 8 goals, 42 assists, 50 points) and forward Oliver Tulk (26 goals, 38 assists, and 64 points). West Vancouver Academy’s Grayden Slipec (26 goals, 47 assists, and 73 points in 26 games) is another top draft prospect. Yale Academy from Vancouver’s Tanner Molendyk (9 goals, 36 assists, 45 points in 24 games) will also garner attention from the scouts.

The Tournament gets going early Friday morning with the championship game taking place Sunday afternoon prior to the Thunderbirds game with the Prince George Cougars.

All games are free to the public and will be streamed live here.