By GREGG DRINNAN
Daily News Sports Editor
Forward Matt Needham of the Kamloops Blazers is one of 13 WHL players to have been invited by Hockey Canada to attend its summer under-18 selection camp.
All told, 40 players, all of them from the CHL and born in 1995 and ’96, have been invited to the camp in Toronto, Aug. 3-6. Afterwards, a 22-player roster will be named to compete in the Memorial of Ivan Hlinka tournament that is scheduled for Piestany, Slovakia, and Breclav, Czech Republic, Aug. 13-18.
“It was exciting to hear,” Needham said Thursday afternoon from his family’s home in Penticton. He also admitted that getting to this camp and making the team “was definitely in the back of my mind.”
Needham, who has never been to Europe, is not a stranger to Hockey Canada and its Program of Excellence, having won gold with Team B.C. at the 2011 Canada Winter Games in Halifax and then placing fifth with Team Pacific at the U17 World Hockey Challenge in Windsor, Ont., last season.
Needham is one of 24 forwards on the roster, along with four goaltenders and 12 defencemen. The OHL is represented by 17 players, with 13 from the QMJHL. The roster was selected by Kevin Prendergrast, Hockey Canada’s head scout, along with the coaching staff. Todd Gill of the OHL’s Kingston Canadians is the head coach, with Yanick Jean (QMJHL-Victoriaville Tigres) and Scott Walker (OHL-Guelph Storm) are the assistants.
Needham, who was selected eighth overall by the Blazers in the WHL’s 2010 bantam draft, had 34 points, including 12 goals, in 61 games last season. He added seven points in 11 playoff games.
He really appeared to come into his own in the regular-season’s last six weeks.
“I had a few good games in a row and I kept building off it,” he said. It was then, he added, that he realized he was capable of “putting up numbers” at this level. It dawned on him that, indeed, he could be a “point-per-game kind of guy” and “I started doing that towards the end.”
The coaching staff also began giving him consistent time on the penalty-killing unit, a move that further defined his role.
Needham said he took a break after the Blazers’ season ended with seven-game loss to the Portland Winterhawks in the second round.
“I took a couple of weeks off to let my body relax and get all the bumps and bruises out,” he said. “It was pretty strenuous and it was nice to take a little break.”
Needham also admitted he’ll be a long-time forgetting the series with Portland, a series in which the Blazers lost the first three games. They came back to force a Game 7, only to lose 2-0 in Portland.
“It was a good learning experience for me and everyone else,” he said. “It was our first crack at it and to push a team that good to seven games, especially down 3-0 . . . it’s prett impressive looking back at it.
“It’s tough to lose but . . .”
Now, with last season in his rearview mirror, he is starting to get back into training and will step it up even more once school ends later this month.
“Once I can free up some more time,” he said, “I’ll be able to start getting into it a bit more.”
His father, Mike, works at the Okanagan Hockey Academy in Penticton, which is where Matt played before joining the Blazers. Getting ice time won’t be a problem then, and he’ll be on the ice more and more as August nears.
The U-18 selection camp will be a new experience for Needham, because he has never attended one like this. Prior to making Team B.C. and Team Pacific, he attended summer camps, with team rosters named later in the season.
“You can’t take any days off,” Needham said, looking forward to the four-day camp in August.
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