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Hitmen duo ready to host CHL's top prospects

by Aaron Vickers

CALGARY -- There's something to be said for home-ice advantage.

Calgary Hitmen teammates Jake Virtanen and Ben Thomas will have 'Dome ice advantage in the 2014 BMO CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game at Scotiabank Saddledome on Wednesday (9 p.m. ET, NHLN-US, Sportsnet).

"It gives me a little bit of confidence right from the start," Virtanen said. "It's in the [Saddledome]. Others are probably not used to playing in an NHL rink. I'm really excited for that. I'm really comfortable with that. I've been here [in Calgary] for almost two years now. I think it gives me and Ben a little bit of confidence more than most guys."

Virtanen and Thomas will be teammates Wednesday as members of Team Orr.

Outside of that, though, Thomas admitted he didn't know quite what to expect at the event, which starts Monday with media availabilities and the first practices for Team Orr and Team Cherry.

"I have no idea," Thomas, a 6-foot-2, 193-pound defenseman, said. "It's going to be a new experience. I'm looking forward to it but I'm also a little nervous. I'm probably more excited. I'm trying to stay calm. I know if my nerves get the best of me it probably won't turn out very well, so I'd probably say I'm more excited."

There's plenty of reasons for Thomas to be nervous and excited.

The Top Prospects Game will feature 40 of the top 2014 NHL Draft-eligible players from the Canadian Hockey League for off-ice testing, on-ice testing and an exhibition game played in front of NHL scouts, general managers and executives.

Last year's game in Halifax, Nova Scotia, featured 19 players who were selected in the first round of the 2013 NHL Draft. In the event's previous 18 years, a total of 248 participating players have gone on to be selected in the first round of the NHL draft, representing 47 percent of all picks.

Needless to say, Thomas knows the importance of a good showing.

"Everyone comes there to show what they've got and they're the best players in Canada," he said. "You've got to show what you've got there and try to impress the scouts."

Despite the pressure, Virtanen said he is staying calm.

"There are going to be a lot of scouts there and a lot of guys are going to try to make an impression right away and try to improve themselves to get higher in the draft," the 6-foot-1, 210-pound forward said. "I'm going to try not to worry about it. I'm just here to have fun and get the experience playing with these guys. It's going to be a lot of fun for me. It'll be really exciting."

Virtanen's approach comes after he took advice from Hitmen goaltender Chris Dreidger.

Driedger, 19, is the most-recent member of the Hitmen to skate in the Top Prospects Game; he played in Kelowna in 2012. He told Calgary's latest duo to sit back, relax and enjoy, and Virtanen is ready to oblige.

"He told me and Benny to have a lot of fun," Virtanen said. "He had a lot of fun. He met new guys. It's something that you'll have bonds with guys forever. Only certain guys get to go. It's pretty surreal for us to go to that and Chris said it was amazingly fun."

If either player gets a little too riled up, they don't have to look far for the other.

Like they do on the bench as Hitmen teammates, the duo is ready to count on each other with Team Orr.

"We're pretty good friends, so having a guy you know and are teammates with will definitely be something that you can feed off of," Thomas said. "We love to play with each other out there on the ice."

On home ice no less.

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