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Traverse City tournament a hotbed for future stars

by Mike G. Morreale

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. -- It was four years ago that Carolina Hurricanes forward Jeff Skinner provided fans a glimpse of what his future would hold when he played in the Traverse City Prospect Tournament at Centre ICE Arena in Traverse City, Mich.

Just three months after the Hurricanes made him the No. 7 pick in the 2010 NHL Draft, Skinner helped lead his team to a third-place finish at the eight-team event behind a tournament-leading seven points (two goals) in four games.

Skinner went on to earn a spot on Carolina's roster out of training camp, had 31 goals and 63 points in 82 regular-season games, was an injury replacement at the NHL All-Star Game and won the 2011 Calder Memorial Trophy as the NHL rookie of the year.

A number of current NHL stars, including Carolina Hurricanes forward Jeff Skinner, got their first taste of high-pressure professional hockey at the Traverse City Prospects Tournament. (Photo: Dave Reginek/NHLI, Gregg Forwerck/NHLI)

"Going into the tournament, you realize it is one of the first times that management sees you at the next level where you are playing against older guys," Skinner said. "I went into it knowing that it was going to be competitive and a lot of fun. I just tried to relax and work my hardest."

Skinner certainly wasn't the first prospect from the Traverse City Tournament to turn into an NHL superstar, and he won't be the last.

That's precisely the mindset of many of the young players taking part in the 16th annual Traverse City tournament, which begins Friday.

"The tournament was a great experience," Skinner said. "It's a young guy's first taste of the next level. I just wanted to be one of those guys that management was looking at as a potential player. It helped me prepare for the main camp and it gave me game experience I needed."

The five-day tournament expanded to eight teams in 2006 and has become an annual staple for coaches and general managers to evaluate their prospects against their peers.

The host Detroit Red Wings, who celebrated their first tournament championship last year, will compete in the Gordie Howe Division, along with the Minnesota Wild, St. Louis Blues and Columbus Blue Jackets. The Ted Lindsay Division will feature the Hurricanes, Dallas Stars, New York Rangers and Buffalo Sabres.

The Red Wings will be looking to win consecutive titles for the first time since the Blue Jackets won back-to-back in 2005 and 2006.

"The tournament is a high-pressure situation for any player, but it is also a great opportunity," Skinner said. "As a young guy that is the place you want to be, showcasing your skills, and proving you are a potential NHL player and hopefully earn an opportunity like I did."

Tomas Jurco
Right Wing - DET
GOALS: 8 | ASST: 7 | PTS: 15
SOG: 77 | +/-: 0
In the tournament's history, 440 players who participated have skated in at least one NHL game, including six with the 2013-14 Red Wings: Tomas Jurco, Alexey Marchenko, Xavier Ouellet, Teemu Pulkkinen, Riley Sheahan and Ryan Sproul.

"[The Traverse City tournament] always carries a lot of weight," Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen said. "The best players at that tournament usually make the NHL right away. Guys who are ready or close to it usually rise to the top and you can see it. It's a great tournament to evaluate players."

The teams will play each of the three opponents in their division in a round-robin format followed by a crossover game on the final day of the tournament. The top finishers in each division will then play in the championship game on Tuesday at 7 p.m. ET. All games will take place at David's Rink and Huntington Rink at the Centre ICE Arena, the training camp home of the Red Wings.

"I'm a fan of all sports and appreciate what baseball does with the development and evaluation of their players," Red Wings GM Ken 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."

The tournament has seen its share of star power through the years, with forwards Henrik Zetterberg, Dany Heatley, Pavel Datsyuk, Carl Hagelin, Niklas Kronwall, Derek Stepan, T.J. Oshie, Evander Kane, Ryan Johansen and Gustav Nyquist, and defensemen John Moore, Justin Faulk and Alex Pietrangelo all playing in it.

Last year the tournament featured top prospects Anthony Mantha of Detroit; Boone Jenner and Ryan Murray of Columbus; Rasmus Ristolainen and Nikita Zadorov of Buffalo; Valeri Nichushkin and Jamie Oleksiak of Dallas; Jesper Fast and Anthony Duclair of the Rangers; and Elias Lindholm of Carolina.

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