The NHL All-Stars aren’t the only outstanding hockey players in Nashville this weekend.
Some of the nation’s best youth players are coming to participate in the 2016 Jr. All-Star Tournament, which will be played Friday through Sunday at three rinks.
“The level of competition is going to be extremely high,” said Jr. Predators hockey director Jordan French, who also coaches two of the teams. “Depending on the (age division), we actually have some of the top programs from North America coming to Nashville, which is very exciting.”
In addition to six Jr. Predators teams, the Nashville Flyers and 31 out-of-area teams will compete at Ford Ice Center, Centennial Sportsplex and A-Game Sportsplex. The tournament is for ages 9-15 and is split into six age divisions.
When officials sent out invitations they started by identifying teams — like the Jr. Predators — that are affiliated with NHL clubs.
“The hope was to drive in teams from across the country from as many NHL markets to town during the same weekend as the NHL All-Star Game,” said Ford Ice Center general manager Danny Butler. “We were very happy to be able to get 31 teams from around the country to compete with our local teams. It absolutely shows that we’re a great hockey market and it shows that the three rinks in town work well together.”
Other teams from NHL cities include the Dallas Stars Elite, Phoenix Jr. Coyotes, Florida Jr. Panthers, New York Jr. Rangers and New York Jr. Islanders, St. Louis Jr. Blues, Pittsburgh Penguins Elite, Carolina Jr. Hurricanes, Washington Little Capitals, Colorado Rampage and the Columbus Jr. Blue Jackets.
“This is something that Atlanta did in 2005,” Butler said. “They did a smaller tournament and it really hasn’t been tried again since then. With the opening of the Ford Ice Center and with (the Predators) running the ice rink, we took this as an opportunity to invite these teams out and do something really special in conjunction with this weekend.
“It just really shows that Nashville is driving youth hockey in the city and we’re really starting to produce some great hockey players.”
Each of the age divisions will begin play at 8 a.m. Friday at the three rinks and continue through 8 p.m. Play continues from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and wraps up with championship games at noon Sunday.
The Jr. Predators have only been around for six years, while some other programs in the tournament are more established.
“It will vary according to birth year (of the player),” French said. “For example, our 2004 birth year team competed in the NHL Cup, which is a lot of similar teams, and our record was 3-2. So we will be competitive in some of the divisions and it will be a little bit more of a challenge in the others.”
Jeffrey Stanton, 14, a freshman at Blackman High School, has been in the Jr. Predators program since it began and has watched it improve each year as more players got involved.
“When we first started no one even knew we had a team,” Stanton said. “Now everyone is starting to notice us because the program is becoming bigger and bigger. We’ve gotten more skilled players to join over the years and the players who have been in the program have improved.”
All of the teams in the tournament are guaranteed to play at least five games, and none of the games will conflict with NHL All-Star Game events on Saturday and Sunday. Each junior player was given the opportunity to purchase priority tickets for the All-Star events.
“We sold between 300 and 400 tickets (to the All-Star Game) by December,” Butler said. “And for those who didn’t buy tickets we will invite them to watch the game together at (Bridgestone Winter Park next to Bridgestone Arena).”
Admission is free for all the tournament games. Butler expects there to be plenty of spectators.
“A lot of the families of the players on the other teams are coming to make a vacation out of this,” he said. “You don’t necessarily see that with most tournaments, but they’re doing it with this one since it’s in Nashville and we’re a destination city. Their sisters, their brothers, their mothers, their fathers and their grandparents are coming for this one where usually it’s just dad and mom who come along.”
Reach Mike Organ at 615-259-8021 and on Twitter @MikeOrganWriter.
2016 Jr. All-Star Tournament
When: 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday, 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, noon Sunday
Where: Ford Ice Center, Centennial Sportsplex, A-Game Sportsplex
More information: Call 615-742-4399