By: Mitchell Fox
The Hlinka Gretzky Cup prospects tournament came to a conclusion Saturday afternoon with Canada’s 3-2 overtime victory over Czechia.
This year's edition of the week-long under-18 international tournament has been (hosted by Hockey Canada, the Czech Ice Hockey Association and the Slovak Ice Hockey Federation for over 30 years) was no exception to the usual fanfare. The group stage featured six teams at 2-1 records and the final came down to the last seconds of a ten-minute three-on-three overtime.
The tournament kicked off with a swath of blowouts and high-scoring affairs. Just on day one, Canada lost 9-6 to Finland in the first significant upset of the tournament, while Sweden, Czechia and Switzerland each won by at least three goals over Germany, the United States and Slovakia respectively.
The United States then shook things up when they beat Sweden 6-1 the next day, an indication of the up-and-down nature of the tournament for many teams.
Even the eventual winners, Canada, had to go through it all on their way to the gold medal. Their 9-6 loss to Finland stands as an outlier among a 14-4 win over Slovakia and a 5-0 victory over Switzerland in the group stage, as well as a 7-2 win against the United States in the semi-finals.
The other finalists, Czechia, continued by taking down Germany 6-2 and then losing to Sweden in their final group stage game. They met Finland in the semis, delivering another blowout victory with an 8-2 final and setting the stage for a final between the nations from which the two namesakes of the tournament hailed (Ivan Hlinka from Czechia and Wayne Gretzky from Canada).
The final was surely the most heart-pounding game of the tournament, and not only because the gold medal was on the line. A 3-2 overtime victory off the stick of Erie Otters forward Malcolm Spence with seven seconds left in the first extra frame made sure the tournament did not get lost in hockey’s Summer lull.
Now that you know how the tournament went, let’s take a look at some key takeaways from the 2023 edition of the Hlinka Gretzky Cup.
Canada’s star power showed up in spades
Canada’s gold medal roster was, to no one’s surprise, made up of the biggest names in under-18 prospects circles. From standout scorers up front to an unmatched defence core and from players preparing for this year’s NHL Draft to a player two years away, the team had strength and depth to be heralded.
The top player at the tournament was Canada’s Berkly Catton, who finished with eight points in five games. Catton, who is already one of the top-ranked prospects for the 2024 NHL Draft, showed promise as a goal-scorer and playmaker while leading the team as their captain. Also eligible for that draft is the second-leading scorer in the tournament, Ryder Ritchie. Ritchie’s playmaking skill and strength led to a very effective nine-point performance.
Another Canadian forward who gained a lot of attention both before and during the tournament was Michael Misa. Misa was the youngest member of the squad and yet still one of its best, finishing with eight points. He will not be eligible for the NHL Draft until 2026, meaning he has lots of opportunity to turn an impressive rookie season as an exceptional status player in the OHL and showing at this tournament into a campaign to be a bonafide first-round talent.
Of course, the golden goal-scorer cannot be left off the list. Spence had an extraordinary tournament at both ends of the ice, with four points serving as just the smallest indicator of a strong performance in all situations, at both ends of the ice and at passing and shooting. OHL prospects writer Brock Otten called Spence "dangerous at all times" in his thread on Canada's OHL players (which I encourage you to check out).
Finally, defence was one of Canada’s strengths in the tournament coming in and it proved to play a key role, especially in the finals against Czechia. Henry Mews and Zayne Parekh showed their immense skill and Charlie Elick proved his prowess on both sides of the puck, but none stood out like Sam Dickinson. The London Knights defenceman displayed a mix of smarts, agility, playmaking and checking ability seen only in the best at the under-18 level, giving him a good early start to a year of proving his worth to NHL scouts. https://twitter.com/BrockOtten/status/1688520865799958528?s=20
Do not count out Czechia
The silver medalists certainly earned their way to that position, proving themselves with dominant victories over the United States and Finland throughout the tournament to be among the best hockey nations at the under-18 level.
Leading the way were three of six Adams on the team, Adam Benak, Adam Titlbach and Adam Jiricek. Benak, a 16-year-old eligible for the 2025 NHL Draft, may only stand at 5’6” according to his EliteProspects page, but his team-leading nine points proved he is a big presence.
Titlbach, another relatively small player at 5’9”, had eight points including five goals off of his powerful shot. He is expected to bring his talents to the Vancouver Giants of the WHL this year after they selected him with the 21st pick in the CHL Import Draft earlier this summer.
Jiricek is the name more of the hockey world will know. After all, Adam is following int he footsteps of his older brother David, a top prospect for the Columbus Blue Jackets drafted fifth overall in 2022. With a bit of a more dynamic game but less defensive shutdown ability than his brother, Adam Jiricek showed flashes of agilit and speed scouts have to be a fan of at this stage in a prospect’s journey.
Add in the impressive .910 save percentage performance of goaltender Jakub Milota (who was selected by the Cape Breton Eagles of the QMJHL in the Import Draft) in the tournament and it is easy to see the foundations of not only a silver-medal performance but a very positive trajectory for Czech hockey.
The Hlinka Gretzky Cup is historically not America’s tournament
There is an elephant in the room to be addressed for many who may not watch the Hlinka Gretzky tournament often. One of the world’s best hockey countries seemed almost like an after thought at times during the tournament, even with a bronze medal finish.
The United States did have a team and a very strong one at that, but it is worth mentioning that they do not send all of their best prospects to the tournament as Canada does. The team iced by the Unted States consisted of all of the best players outside of the National Team Development Program (USNTDP) and thus was missing some of the biggest names for the 2024 and 2025 drafts.
Nevertheless, USHL stars such as Trevor Connelly (who had 10 points in five games) and defenceman Will Felicio stood out as the team pushed aside strong teams from Sweden and Finland.
The United States have won the tournament once in its 32-year history, in 2003. In comparison, Canada has won 24 times including now the last tournaments.
Switzerland on the rise?
One team that migth have surprised some people in this tournament is Switzerland, who finished third in Group B with a 2-1 record but a worse goal differential than Canada and Finland.
The Swiss did not get a standout performance in the vein of Catton, Ritchie, Connelly or Benak, but they did have some strong tournaments. Heading up the list is leading scorer Jordan Forget, who had five points, and Jamiro Reber, who had four points and showed some real flashy skill up the middle of the ice. Those two, and especially sturdy defenceman Daniil Ustinkov, could be players to watch this year’s draft.
What really set Switzerland apart and contributed to their best performance at the tournament to date was their depth and team play. Though they only scored 11 goals, they also only allowed 12, including allowing just one against Finland and forcing Sweden to go into overtime to get their 3-2 victory in the fifth place game. They found a way to stay consistent and make teams fight their way passed them, a strong foundation if this team of players hopes to make its mark at future international events.
The question now becomes: could this be the start of a promising era in Swiss prospect circles. It is not a sure thing, but there are certainly some players and a team to watch going forward.
This is just one tournament for U-18 players
To end off, an important disclaimer. It is said often about any prospects or junior tournament, but fans should remember that this tournament is not a make-or-break part of a player’s journey.
Many players do nto even get to go to the tournament, it takes place in August when players may not be fully prepared for their seasons and there is still almost a year until the NHL Draft and it is only five games long at most.
So, if a player did not have as strong a tournament as hoped or expected, it is far from their last chance to prove their worth. This goes for the top prospects as well as the names not known in most circles, who may just burst onto the scene at some point this year or in the future.
For more prospects and OHL coverage, stay tuned to The Intermission Sports. Coming soon: want to know what a season looks like for a prospective NHL draft pick? Check out our Prospects Season Primer.