VANCOUVER, B.C. — Everett Silvertips goaltender Carter Hart made his way along the rubber mats laid over the concrete en route the Pacific Coliseum ice with the rest of Team Orr Wednesday afternoon.
As he did so, Moose Jaw Warriors netminder Zach Sawchenko, who is playing for Team Cherry at Thursday night’s BMO CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game, shot Hart a smile and a nod.
“Looking good, Hartsie,” Sawchenko told his off-ice friend and on-ice adversary, as Hart trudged by.
Hart and Sawchenko, ranked Nos. 1 and 3, respectively among North American goaltenders in the current NHL Central Scouting rankings, are among the top 40 draft-eligible CHL players here at the Top Prospects Game. It’s the first time Vancouver has played host to the event since 2005.
“We’re competitors, but we’re friends off the ice,” Sawchenko said. “On the ice I think both of us can say we’ll do anything for our teams to win, but off the ice we’re good friends.”
The event included combine-like on-ice testing Wednesday and media sessions afterward. The game itself begins at 6 p.m. Thursday night and will be televised on NHL Network.
For many the midweek event also serves as a reunion of sorts. A number of this year’s players competed for Team Canada at last year’s U-18 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament in Europe. Sawchenko and Hart were teammates with that group.
“It’s been a lot of fun so far,” Hart said. “Coming here and seeing all your buddies that you played with in the summer and seeing them and getting this opportunity is really special.”
Legendary NHL defenseman Bobby Orr, coaches the team that bears his name and currently holds a five-game winning streak over the team led by former NHL head coach and broadcaster Don Cherry.
Hart’s teammates Thursday include the likes of Matthew Tkachuk of the OHL’s London Knights, the top-rated North American skater, Alexander Nylander of the OHL’s Mississauga Steelheads (No. 3-ranked skater) and Pierre-Luc Dubois of Cape Breton of the QMJHL (No. 7).
Sawchenko will play behind Jakob Chychrun of the OHL’s Sarnia Sting (No. 2-ranked skater), Julien Gauthier of the Val-d’Or Foreurs of the QMJHL (No. 4) and Michael McLeod of Mississauga (No. 6).
Unlike traditional all-star games, the Top Prospects Game has a reputation for being very competitive. Players are in their draft year and looking to improve their stock any way they can.
The players’ competitiveness caught Cherry by surprise when he first started coaching the event.
“It was like the seventh game of the Stanley Cup and they were ready to go,” Cherry said. “No kidding around. It’s like the dressing room here. You’d think the kids would be throwing tape and having fun, but they know there’s going to be 200 scouts and general managers and everything out there.”
Hart, who is about as unflappable as 17-year-olds come, isn’t getting caught up in either the rankings or the bevy of scouts who will be present.
“It’s just one game, right?” he said. “It’s not going to dictate your future. We have 30 regular-season games left and it’s just one stepping stone.”
Hart has received attention all season long, but the degree of attention has ramped up considerably since the draft rankings came out last week. He’s the first Silvertips goaltender to hit the No. 1 ranking in team history.
Dan Marr, the director of NHL Central Scouting, said Hart’s focus and mental toughness make him stand out among other elite goaltenders.
“He’s got all the athletic abilities of quickness and reflexes that you want to see in goalies, but his concentration — the way he can track and follow the puck — he’s just sharp,” Marr said. “He’s mentally sharp all the time. He arrives on time, he sees the play develop and he’s very, very focused. That mental toughness is the key ingredient for a player that wants to play in the National Hockey League.”
Hart did allow himself to break into an easy smile during Wednesday afternoon’s on-ice session. If he continues to play as well as he has this season, that smile will be even bigger in June when he hears his name called from the stage at the NHL draft in Buffalo, N.Y.
For the latest Silvertips news follow Jesse Geleynse on Twitter @jessegeleynse.