A pair of "exceptional" junior hockey players will join forces for Ontario when the 2013 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge is held in Victoriaville and Drummondville, Quebec.
The 10-team tournament, scheduled Dec. 29, 2012, through Jan. 4, 2013, features five clubs from Canada, along with teams from the United States, Finland, Russia, Slovakia and Sweden. A total of 18 players who had at one time participated in the World U-17 Hockey Challenge were selected in the first round of the 2012 NHL Draft in Pittsburgh last June.
Highlighting Ontario's roster are 2014 draft-eligible defenseman Aaron Ekblad of the Ontario Hockey League's Barrie Colts and 2015 draft prospect Connor McDavid of the OHL's Erie Otters. Both players were granted exceptional player status by Hockey Canada to be eligible for their respective OHL Priority Selection drafts. Ekblad was promptly drafted No. 1 by the Colts in 2011 and McDavid was chosen first by the Otters in 2012.
Team Ontario roster
DEFENSEMEN -- Roland McKeown, Kingston, OHL (2014); Brandon Prophet, Saginaw, OHL (2014); Conor Cummins, Sudbury, OHL (2014); Aaron Ekblad, Barrie, OHL (2014); Jacob Middleton, Owen Sound, OHL (2014); Daniel DeSousa, Belleville, OHL (2014); Dylan DiPerna, Kingston, OHL (2014).
FORWARDS -- Connor McDavid, Erie, OHL (2015); Eric Cornel, Peterborough, OHL (2014); Sam Bennett, Kingston, OHL (2014); Jared McCann, Sault Ste. Marie, OHL (2014); Niki Petti, Belleville, OHL (2014); Spencer Watson, Kingston, OHL (2014); Josh Ho-Sang, Windsor, OHL (2014); Michael Dal Colle, Oshawa, OHL (2014); Brett Hargrave, Sarnia, OHL (2014); Robby Fabbri, Guelph, OHL (2014); Dante Salituro, Ottawa, OHL (2015); Damian Bourne, Mississauga, OHL (2014); Jaden Lindo, Owen Sound, OHL (2014).
Ekblad and McDavid join John Tavares, who was taken as the No. 1 pick in the 2009 NHL Draft by the New York Islanders, as the only players over the past decade to be awarded exceptional player status.
Ekblad, a 6-foot-4, 213-pound two-way threat, has four goals, 18 points and a plus-8 rating in 26 games for Barrie this season. He had 10 goals, 29 points and a minus-5 rating in 63 games as a rookie in 2011-12.
Ekblad, a native of Belle River, Ontario, is already projected by many to be the top selection at the 2014 NHL Draft in Philadelphia.
McDavid leads all rookies in scoring with 14 goals and 32 points in 26 games. He also became the youngest player to compete in the 10-year history of the Subway Super Series when he suited up for Team OHL against Russia on Nov. 8 in Guelph, Ontario.
The 5-foot-11, 170-pound center was named the OHL Rookie of the Month for October, producing 12 points in 10 contests for Erie (six goals, six assists). He has seven goals and 14 points in 11 games in November.
The native of Newmarket, Ontario, is projected by many to go first at the 2015 NHL Draft. He erupted for 209 points in 88 games for the Toronto Marlboros of the Greater Toronto Hockey League, including 33 goals and 72 points in 33 games in 2011-12.
Ontario, which will be coached by Troy Smith of the Kitchener Rangers, opens against the United States on Dec. 29 in Group B preliminary round competition at the Colisee in Victoriaville. Defending gold-medalist Russia also opens Dec. 29 against Hockey Canada's Team Pacific in Group A preliminary round action at the Centre Marcel Dionne in Drummondville.
"This is an important tournament for Canada's young, up-and-coming players, as it is their first opportunity to impress scouts in best-on-best competition," Hockey Canada head scout Kevin Prendergast said. "Hockey fans in Quebec can expect the cream of the crop from this age group to be on the ice in Victoriaville and Drummondville."
The gold medal game will be held Jan. 4 at the Colisee, 7:30 p.m. ET.
Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale