Calgary, AB – The top 1997-born players from across western Canada will be showcasing their skills this weekend as the 2012 Western Canada Under-16 Challenge Cup begins on Thursday, November 1st, at Father David Bauer arena in Calgary, AB.

The Western Canada U-16 Challenge Cup is the creation of the four western provincial hockey associations, in partnership with the Western Hockey League. The tournament, now in its third year, sees 80 of the top prospects from Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia battle it out for western Canadian supremacy.

“It provides the opportunity for the players to take the first step in the Hockey Canada Program of Excellence, to compete against the best players in their age category, and provides the provincial associations an opportunity to evaluate players as they move into the Under-17 program next year,” said WHL commissioner Ron Robison.

The event will give fans an opportunity to see the next wave of WHL stars as they battle for provincial bragging rights. A whopping 76 of the 80 players set to play in the tournament were selected by WHL Clubs in the 2012 WHL Bantam Draft, including 20 players who were chosen in the draft’s first round.

Team Alberta comes into the 2012 Western Canada U-16 Challenge Cup as two-time defending champions, having won in 2009 in Blackfalds, AB, and in 2011 in Moose Jaw, SK.

In 2009, it was WHL stars such as Red Deer’s Matt Dumba and Prince Albert’s Mike Winther leading the way for Team Alberta, and Moose Jaw’s Brayden Point and Swift Current’s Brycen Martin in 2011. This year’s edition of Team Alberta will shine a light on names like Lethbridge Hurricanes’ prospect Giorgio Estephan and Prince Albert first-round draft pick Brendan Guhle.

As the only champions through the first two editions of the tournament, Team Alberta isn’t felling any extra pressure to perform a Three-peat.

“I think every year is a new year and, at the end of the day, you can only put so much pressure on yourself or the team,” said Alberta head coach Bryce Thoma, who has been an assistant coach with the Rebels for the last four seasons.

“There are completely new players every year,” said Thoma. “We do draw on past successes, and we hope we can enjoy success again this year.”

While Team Alberta may be aiming for a third straight title, Team Manitoba is hoping the third time is the charm. Having lost in the championship game to Team Alberta in both 2009 and 2011, Team Manitoba hopes to finally seal the deal in their third go-around.

Though they may not boast the star power of other entries, Team Manitoba will look for a collective effort to find success in the 2012 Western Canada U-16 Challenge Cup.

“We feel we have a balanced roster,” said Manitoba head coach Dan Eliasson, who is also the head coach of the Winnipeg Thrashers of the Manitoba Midget AAA League. “I don’t think you will see any one or two players take the ball and run.

“We don’t have a lot of flash, but I think we have a group of players who are going to be hard-working and can grind out those 2-1 wins,” he added.

Manitoba does boast some high-end talent with the likes of defenceman Thomas Lenchyshyn, a first-round pick of the Lethbridge Hurricanes, and forward Colt Conrad, another Hurricanes prospect whose six goals in the 2012 Western Canadian Bantam Championship tied for the tournament lead.

Team Saskatchewan will be aiming to improve on their fourth-place finish in the 2011 tournament, held in their home province.

The Saskatchewan lineup boasts some skilled and speedy skaters up front, including Kamloops Blazers’ first-round pick Jayden Halbgewachs and Calgary Hitmen prospect Terrell Draude. However, the team’s strength lies in a solid and mobile defence corps headed up by Troy Murray, the younger brother of Everett Silvertips’ star Ryan Murray and whom the Kootenay Ice selected 10th overall in the 2012 WHL Bantam Draft.

“I think our strength will be in our defence, for sure, and that’s where our toughest decisions had to be made,” said Saskatchewan head coach Bob Beatty of a Saskatchewan blue line that also boasts Brennan Riddle (17th overall, Calgary), Tate Olson (24th overall, Prince George), and Ethan Bear (25th overall, Seattle).

Boasting 10 players who were selected in the first round of the 2012 WHL Bantam Draft, including six of the top eight picks, Team BC shapes up as a formidable squad. Having finished fourth and third, respectively, in the first two editions of the tournament, Team BC aims to get its collection of talent on the same page to make a push for the 2012 championship.

“The game of hockey is only played with one puck, so it’s vital that each one of our player knows where they need to be when they don’t have the puck,” said Team BC coach Ryan Weber. “We’re going to focus a lot on our systems and really hammer home the little details that will make a big difference come game time.”

Though Team BC has plenty of skill and hockey smarts right through its lineup, expect names like Matthew Barzal, the first overall pick of the 2012 WHL Bantam Draft, and fellow top-10 Bantam Draft picks such as Jansen Harkins (Prince George) and Glenn Gawdin (Swift Current) to feature heavily into what should be a dynamic offense.

“Up front we’re looking to players like Mathew, Jansen and Glenn to lead the charge,” said Weber. “But having said that, we have players throughout our line-up who, when given the chance, can bury the puck, so it isn’t a matter of relying on one guy or one line, but ensuring that everyone is rolling and going in the right direction.”

The 2012 Western Canada Under-16 Challenge Cup begins with round-robin play on Thursday, November 1, and wraps up with the Gold and Bronze medal games on Sunday, November 4.