Grizzlies’ Wood ready to lead Canada at Hlinka Gretzky Cup

Matthew Wood, right, takes part in a practice scrimmage with the Canada Under-18s team. MATT MURNAGHAN, HOCKEY CANADA

Matthew Wood really hasn’t had time to enjoy the warm weather that has hit his home town of Nanaimo recently.

In fact, he has barely left the ice rink in the past few months. When his Victoria Grizzlies were eliminated from the B.C. Hockey League playoffs in April, he almost immediately joined Canada’s Under-18 men’s national team for the IIHF World U-18 Championship in Germany. That wrapped up in May with Canada missing the podium.

And the 17-year-old winger, who’s projected to go in the first round of the 2023 NHL draft, just spent the past couple of weeks in Calgary with Canada’s U-18 team preparing for the Hlinka Gretzky Cup which begins Sunday in Red Deer.

“Yeah, it’s been a lot of hockey, but it’s been a lot of fun and I’m with a great group of guys so that makes it easier,” Wood said Thursday over the phone from Calgary after stepping off the ice from the team’s final practice before it heads north to Red Deer today for a pre-tournament game against Finland.

Even though the Hlinka Gretzy Cup is another U-18 tournament, the talent level is much greater than it was at the U-18 worlds in the spring. Canada’s team at the world championship was missing most of its top players because the tournament ran during the Canadian Hockey League playoffs.

Not so this time around. Wood is one of just two players back from the world championship team.

“It’s a different animal this time. All the 2005s [17-year-olds] are available now so it’s truly a best-on-best tournament so it’s going to be intense and hopefully brings the best out of us and we do well,” said Wood, who has been playing on a line with Ethan Gauthier, who plays for Sherbrooke in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, and Kalan Lind, a member of the WHL’s Red Deer Rebels.

Canada is in Group A along side Slovakia, Switzerland and current world champion Sweden. Finland, Czechia, Germany and the U.S. are in Group B. Canada opens the tournament Sunday (6 p.m. on TSN) against Switzerland.

“It’s going to be challenge for sure,” Wood said.

“I don’t think there’s a weak team here so you got to bring your best every game.”

Having played at the U-18 worlds, Wood is no stranger to playing for Hockey Canada teams. And, he says, the players and staff are aware of the parliament committee meetings currently going on in Ottawa involving Hockey Canada.

“Of course, you hear things, but we have a tournament to win and that requires us to be totally focused on what’s going on, on the ice, not off it,” he said.

When the Hlinka Gretyzky Cup is over, Wood, who led the BCHL in scoring last season and was named the league’s rookie of the year, has a tough decision to make. He has just finished taking the remainder of his Grade 12 courses online so he could graduate early from Belmont Secondary and has been invited to begin his NCAA Div. 1 scholarship at the University of Connecticut this September. So does he return to Grizzlies and help them chase down a BCHL title, or jump at the chance to start his NCAA career a little early?

“I think I’m going to go to Connecticut,” Wood said. “I’m really leaning toward that. I had a great time with the Grizzlies and played with a great group of guys, but I think it’s time for me to move on to the next level.”