Fans will flock to Center I.C.E. Arena in Traverse City, Mich., starting Sunday to catch a glimpse of some future NHL stars.
It's there the 12th annual NHL Prospects Tournament will take center stage on two ice surfaces. The five-day event expanded to eight teams in 2006 and has become an annual opportunity for coaches and general managers to evaluate top prospects against their peers.
The tournament has seen its share of star power, with Henrik Zetterberg
, Dany Heatley
, Pavel Datsyuk
, Jiri Fischer
, Niklas Kronwall
and Ilya Kovalchuk
all participating at some point during their early playing days.
Last year, the tournament featured Atlanta defenseman Zach Bogosian
, Columbus forward Jakub Voracek
, Dallas forward James Neal
, Minnesota forward Cal Clutterbuck
and St. Louis forwards Patrik Berglund
and T.J. Oshie
. In fact, 19 players who participated in last year's Prospect Tournament played at least one NHL game for their respective team in 2008-09.
"For one week, you've got your staff and prospects together," Detroit General Manager Ken Holland told NHL.com. "Let's face it -- once the NHL players show up, most of the energy is directed toward the real players and team at training camp. This is important because we can really focus on our kids and watch them perform. You always want to make your young players as comfortable as possible because they'll play their best when they're comfortable in their surroundings.
"It's a smooth transition into training camp, since after playing against their peers they can take that next step to the main camp."
Clutterbuck, who had 2 goals and 4 points in four games in Traverse City last year, played 78 games with the Wild last season, posting 18 points and an NHL-leading 356 hits.
"All the guys playing in Traverse are fighting tooth and nail and doing whatever they can to get noticed, so there are a lot of guys who will do things out of character just to make an impression," Clutterbuck said. "It's really physical and intense and that's something I enjoyed. Having a chance to put on that Wild jersey and have that feeling of being part of the team and organization was a great experience."
While there has been discussion of possibly expanding the tournament again, to 12 teams, Holland noted that the 95,000-square-foot facility, which holds two rinks (David's Rink, Huntington Rink) and 18 locker rooms, is "maxed out." Each team is limited to just four professional hockey players -- those who have played in the AHL, ECHL or Central Hockey League. Fighting is allowed, but any player involved in a second fight in any one game is ejected from that game.
Oshie, who had a marvelous rookie campaign in St. Louis with 14 goals and 39 points last season, enjoyed his time at the tournament.
"It's not training camp with all the big guys, but it's a first step for guys just coming into the League and trying to make an impression," Oshie told NHL.com. "I think just the confidence you gain there by meeting new guys gives you a sense of the pro life and it makes you a little more comfortable for training camp."
Six of the seven teams that accompanied the Red Wings to Traverse City the last three years return this season, including the Columbus Blue Jackets
, St. Louis Blues
, Minnesota Wild
and Dallas Stars
in the Western Conference. Joining the Wings in the East are the Atlanta Thrashers
, New York Rangers
and first-year participant Carolina Hurricanes
"I actually called Kenny (Holland) about this tournament the last couple of years but there wasn't any room for us," Carolina GM Jim Rutherford said. "When he approached me and said there was an opening this year, I said, 'We're in.' "
The Dallas Stars
scored an 8-3 victory against the Thrashers in last year's prospects championship game. Each team is guaranteed four games, including three against each divisional opponent, before entering the final day of competition, Sept. 10.
"The tournament has grown because we have better attendance and because it's great hockey," tournament organizer Peter Correia told NHL.com. "These kids are fighting for those jobs and I think it's great. During those first few years I couldn't give a ticket away to go to these things and now we have great attendance."
Correia realizes the benefits of hosting the tournament in Traverse City.
"This is important because we can really focus on our kids and watch them perform. You always want to make your young players as comfortable as possible because they'll play their best when they're comfortable in their surroundings." - Red Wings GM Ken Holland
"I think the tournament is great for our little community, which is really a small tourist town (270 miles north of Detroit)," he said. "We have people waiting a few days for tickets to go on sale so you'd think it was the Stanley Cup or something. There's an added excitement this year for the Red Wings since they'll be headed to Sweden and many of the players and management will be going to the Olympics. This gives fans a chance to not only see their team up close and personal, but watch seven other clubs."
That, according to Holland, is the great benefit of bringing the NHL Prospects Tournament, which is followed by Red Wings training camp, to Traverse City each year.
"I'm a fan of all sports and appreciate what baseball does with the development and evaluation of their players," Holland said. "They keep their kids moving around the clock, throughout the year. I feel the best way to evaluate young players was to watch them against players their age rather than having them out on the ice with players much older and wiser. It would have been difficult for any of these young players to go up against the Steve Yzermans or Brendan Shanahans at training camp, but this setting gives them a chance."
Contact Mike Morreale at email@example.com.