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AAA Blue Jackets to take part in annual Quebec tournament

Columbus youth program has had success at prestigious event

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider / BlueJackets.com

One of the most enduring and endearing traditions in hockey continues this week with the start of the Tournoi International de Hockey Pee-Wee de Quebec. 

Also known as the Quebec Pee-Wee Tournament, the event that brings together youth hockey teams from around the world for a prestigious competition will be celebrating its 60th year from Feb. 13-24. 

And keeping with a tradition established over the past decade-plus, the Ohio AAA Blue Jackets youth program will have an entrant. The 2006 birth year AAA Jackets are leaving Wednesday with their first game scheduled for Sunday in the AA-Elites division.  

The young Columbus natives will face off against the Slovakia K&B Stars in a game played at the Centre Videotron, an 18,259-seat venue in Quebec City that is home of the Quebec Remparts QMJHL team. 

Off the ice, the youngsters will have a chance to immerse themselves in a new culture. Each of the team members will live with a billet family for the 10-day trip. 

"The hockey realistically becomes almost secondary to just the overall experience," said Ed Gingher, who oversees the AAA Blue Jackets program. "The hockey is important and it's the reason we're going up there, but to live with a French-speaking family for 10 days and just be immersed in the culture and be immersed in that tournament and the history … consistently, you talk to players that played in it, they'll call it one of the best if not the best experience of their life.  

"It's that special, that's for sure." 

Teams from 19 different countries will be taking part, and there is sure to be high-level talent from around the world. Such names as Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Guy LaFleur and Patrick Roy have all been on teams that took part in the Quebec tournament. 

In the past, the Blue Jackets teams have more than held their own. The Jackets beat a team from Switzerland to win the AA Elites title in 2014, and the program has had multiple semifinalist squads. 

"We've been pretty lucky to have success out there," Gingher said.  

The team is coached by former Blue Jackets player and current Ohio State women's hockey assistant coach Andrew Cassels; James Nash, the brother of Rick Nash; and Ryan Jestadt, who played at Ohio State. 

The roster includes Birk Cassels, Andrew's son, and Griffin Jestadt, Ryan's son, as well as Evan Merna, Alek Crone, Mitchell Kneidel, Andrew Leonard, Elijah McCarthy, Cade Mascari, Jack Hamilton, Zachary Wolf, Jake Struck, Brady Trout, Parker McDaniels, William Strickland, Michael Greco, Aidan Dickson, Cooper Struckel and Luke Hall. 

They'll hope to follow in the footsteps of such former AAA Blue Jackets as Sean Kuraly, Connor Murphy and Kiefer Sherwood to play in Quebec and go on to have NHL success. But no matter what, what happens this weekend will provide memories for a lifetime. 

"I know my son was fortunate enough to go a couple of years ago and he still talks about it," Gingher said. "My daughter still talks about it. It's definitely a unique experience for 12-year-olds. Kids ask them for autographs. You have a whole different world. It's pretty cool." 

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