After a four-year hiatus, the Russians are returning to the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge.
The addition of Canada's greatest hockey rival to the elite 10-team international tournament should provide a major boost in ticket sales for London and area, the 2008 host beginning on Dec. 29.
Russia hasn't competed in the Under-17 since it failed to finish in the top three at the 2004 event in Newfoundland. Its last medal was a gold at the 2000 tournament in Timmins.
"The Russians haven't been here for a while, but they're coming this time and it's always exciting when they're involved," Challenge chairperson Joe O'Neill said. The Czechs were in, but they weren't able to ice a team this time, so the Russians drop right into the Czech schedule in Pool B" along with the United States, Team Atlantic, Team West and Germany.
That's good news for partner venues Strathroy, which will hold an intriguing Russia-United States opener on Dec. 30 at the Gemini Sportsplex.
Russia's second game will be part of Western Fair's annual Family Day on New Year's Eve and its third game will be on New Year's Day at Stratford's Allman Arena.
"Our partner venues are going to be getting some of the best games in this tournament," O'Neill said. "Now that the schedule's been finalized, the tournament is coming alive."
Host team Ontario will contest an ultra-tough Pool A with defending 2006 champion Quebec (the Canada Winter Games substituted for the 2007 World-Under 17 Hockey Challenge this year), bronze medallist Pacific, Finland and Slovakia. Ontario plays its first game against Team Pacific on Dec. 29 at 7:30 p.m. at the John Labatt Centre.
The expected centrepiece of the preliminary portion of the schedule will be the New Year's Eve afternoon tilt between Quebec and Ontario. A few hours later, the London Knights will face the Sarnia Sting in the first leg of their annual holiday home-and-home series at the JLC.
Many of the players who compete for Ontario in the Under-17 tournament won't be household names at the time, but they will become quickly familiar to fans of the OHL. Current Oshawa Generals star John Tavares led the 2006 Challenge in scoring and his Sam Gagner was second.
"Hardly anyone in Regina at that 2006 tournament would've had a clue who Sam Gagner was back then," O'Neill said, "but shortly after he came to London, he made himself instantly recognizable in this community and he's going to be one of the top picks in (today's) NHL draft."
On Dec. 28, each team will play an exhibition game at one of the partner venues -- Lucan, Strathroy, St. Thomas, Stratford and Western Fair. The semifinals and medal games will be at the JLC.
The host Ontario team will be led by Guelph Storm assistant and Listowel native Jason Brooks as head coach with former London Nationals coach Jake Grimes as an assistant. The final tryouts is scheduled for next week and includes Knights first-rounder goalie Michael Zador.