The graphic on the side of the Canalta Centre in Medicine Hat is hard to miss.
A couple of storeys high and emblazoned with ARE YOU READY? – the tagline for the 2019 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge – it includes a photo of Canada White hoisting the Quebec Cup after winning gold in 2015, the last time a Canadian team topped the podium at the tournament.
Somewhere in the middle of that photo, with all but his hands obscured by his teammates, is a 16-year-old James Hamblin, who was the first to raise the trophy as captain.
The Edmonton native, now a 20-year-old veteran into his fifth Western Hockey League season with the Medicine Hat Tigers, and second as captain, sees the image every day … and it never gets old.
“It’s pretty cool to see that and reminisce about those days again,” he says.
Canada White was far from a favourite when the playoff round started in Dawson Creek and Fort St. John, B.C., especially after a 1-2 preliminary round, but good teams find a way to win when it matters most.
Hamblin starred in a 4-2 quarter-final victory over Finland, tying the game midway through the third period and adding an insurance marker late, and a final-frame winner from Edmonton Oilers first-rounder Evan Bouchard gave White a 2-1 win over Sweden in the semis and a spot in the gold medal game.
With a national TV audience on TSN and a jam-packed partisan crowd in Dawson Creek, the Canadians would not be denied, riding a hat trick from Florida Panthers prospect Owen Tippett to a convincing 6-2 win over Russia.
Gold medal aside, the U17 experience taught Hamblin he really could hang with the big boys of junior hockey.
“It gives you that confidence that you’re right there,” Hamblin says. “And there were some really good [players] there. You get there not expecting much, just trying to go with the flow, and you really see how good a lot of those guys are.”
The Canada White roster is a perfect example. Four years on, it has produced a boatload of talent. Of the 22 players who wore white in northern British Columbia, five have appeared in an NHL game (including one, St. Louis Blues forward Robert Thomas, who owns a Stanley Cup ring) and six were part of Team Canada at the 2019 IIHF World Junior Championship.
But only one could be captain, and there was only one choice.
Hamblin was no stranger to wearing a ‘C’ on his jersey; he served in the role with Edmonton South at the 2014 Alberta Cup and with Alberta at the 2015 Canada Winter Games, so after leading regional and provincial teams, a national side was the logical next step.
“I was really fortunate that those guys thought I should be their leader,” he says of being U17 captain. “It was an unbelievable experience; I definitely learned a lot when it came to leadership. It’s a little bit different than being the leader of a WHL team – it’s a short tournament and not a full season – but there are things I picked up from that and brought to the Tigers.”
A self-described “lead by example” kind of guy, Hamblin has been getting better with age, increasing his point totals from 47 to 64 to a team-leading 77 in the last three seasons in Medicine Hat. (He is averaging more than a point per game early in his final junior campaign, posting 17 in 14 contests.)
The Tigers have hit the road during the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge, working their way across British Colubmbia with five games in eight days, so Hamblin won’t be able to take in any of the tournament, but he knows his adopted hometown will welcome the world with open arms and enjoy what the eight days of hockey have to offer.
“This is a town that loves its hockey,” he says. “It has earned the right to have an event like this and it’s going to do a good job of supporting the teams. [The fans] should expect a fast pace; you look at the guys I played with, and how many are already in the NHL ... you’re looking at the future.”