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Hockey’s Version of Spring Training and other tidbits from the Summer (Part I)

First of all, hope it’s been a great summer for everyone. I’ve had enough of a break from this blog, so let’s jump right in.

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Prospect camps have started everywhere from Florida (Panthers, Preds, Lightning and Capitals) to London, Ontario (Leafs, Habs, Sens, and…the Pens? Guess they needed a placeholder for the Nordiques 2.0), but the two main tournaments, and really the biggest constants in a shifting landscape of preseason get-togethers, are the sessions in Penticton, BC (where the Canucks, Oilers, Flames and Jets are doing battle) and Traverse City, Michigan, the site of the newly named Matthew Wuest Memorial Tournament (R.I.P.), easily the biggest of the prospect tourneys with a bloated 8 teams in 2 pools set to face off. Group A includes Carolina, Chicago, Dallas and Detroit, while Group B consists of Columbus, Minnesota (that Mike Reilly guy might want to keep his head up), New York (Rangers), and St. Louis.

These tournaments officially kick off the hockey season, and for many people that’s reason enough to celebrate. And with a number of high quality prospects showing up to participate, it’s a competitive environment for families and the general public to witness their teams’ finest young talents. Considering the price points (from what I’ve seen, face value is generally around $15-20 a ticket, unless you count the $200 that scalpers are throwing around in BC due to Connor McDavid making his debut) it’s a great opportunity for fans to check out some great players and the occasional hidden gem.

For teams, these events have become a must-attend. And why not, considering the exposure they get to their young talents playing against other young talents. It’s a chance to see their guys strut their stuff. With NHL training camps running just 3 weeks, any opportunity to get a look at a young guy has to be taken. It lightens the pressure on the main camp to see some players of interest, it gets the kids acclimated to the team’s coaches and style of play, and it gives some unheralded young guns one last chance to make a first impression. And hey, the hosts appreciate the extra inflow of cash.

For players, it’s their best chance to show what they’re made of against their peer groups. Many teams have brought on a number of undrafted, unsigned players, meaning the desperation factor is on high for a number of players on the bubble. For signed players, any opportunity to catch the eye of the coaching staff is a chance worth taking. I think the best quote regarding the significance of doing well at these competitions that I’ve seen is “Looking at the scoring leaders at these tournaments is like reading a who’s who list of NHL players.”

For a long time, only the Traverse City tournament (heading into its 17th year) was on the docket in the long gap between prospect camps and the NHL sessions. Nowadays though, with the premium placed on player development and talent acquisition, these tournaments are serious business. How much so? Out of the 30 teams in the NHL, 27 are involved is some sort of pre-camp prospect competition against other NHL teams. Only 3 teams, the Avalanche, Islanders, and Flyers, haven’t signed up for a prospect tournament of some sort.

Could smaller hockey nations, say, China, Korea or Japan, hop on the wagon of sorts? Could there be an annual junior friendly between the nations designed to improve the overall quality of play in the East? A competition where the players are still battling and competing, but whose main goal is skill development rather than talent evaluation might very well be the first step needed in order to facilitate player growth.

As well, some teams run coaching camps designed to facilitate player development and schedule/roster management (the Leafs chief among them). If these nations are to make inroads in their hockey programs, then perhaps having their coaches learn from NHL-caliber groups would (should) be the first step.

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On the junior front, there’s been a number of noteworthy topics, from the continued development (or lack of) from the CHLPA, to the shift in the OHL with the moves of the Belleville Bulls and Plymouth Whalers (to Hamilton and Flint, Michigan, respectively). But the topic I will focus on is the arrival of Joe Veleno in the QMJHL.

This is noteworthy on multiple fronts. Not only is he the 1st overall pick and a frontrunner for 1st overall in the NHL draft, but he’s the first player to receive exceptional status from Hockey Canada to enter the QMJHL. Considering the history behind the development of this policy (with Sidney Crosby being the first player to really generate that sort of discussion, leading to the development of the status in time for Tavares in 2005), it’s a watershed moment for the QMJHL.

And Veleno has already been productive, notching a goal in his debut game with the Saint John Sea Dogs (an aside, the Saint John this team is based out of is the one in New Brunswick, NOT the St. John’s, Newfoundland that so many mistake it for). All eyes are now on him as we barrel down the path of life towards the 2018 draft.

That being said, is exceptional status really a blessing or a curse? Up to this point, we’ve seen a number of phenomenal players receive consideration for early entry into the junior ranks. Crosby is the obvious choice despite never actually entering the QMJHL early, Tavares has proven to be a stellar NHL player and franchise cornerstone, and both Aaron Ekblad and Connor McDavid show tremendous promise.

However, the other side of the equation is that of the exceptional player, who isn’t really that exceptional. Hockey Canada has received its fair share of criticism over the years for letting politics get in the way of decision-making processes, and the awarding of the exceptional status is the shiny new toy receiving public attention for all the wrong reasons. Take Sean Day. A player who was very good against players a year older, elite skater with a big body and all the physical tools.

However, despite having all the advantages in the world (including an age gap between him and his fellow prospects that should have, in theory, made him a more valuable asset simply for the fact that he’d potentially play 1 more year in the OHL compared to his peers at the top of the draft) Day went 4th in the OHL Priority Selection. In his career to date, he’s been criticized for everything from a lack of hockey sense to being out of shape (the supposed reason for his exclusion from the Ivan Hlinka Memorial roster for Team Canada this past summer). In many ways, receiving early entry into the OHL has been more of an anchor than a stepping stone for Sean Day.

And this opens up a new debate. Veleno’s parents have been on record as saying that they don’t believe exceptional status is meant only for the elite of the elite, but is simply there so that good players can play against better competition, if they are capable of the feat. Some agree with the statement, others are vehement in their claim that exceptional status should not be diluted for the “average” exceptional talent.

Reality or not, the term “exceptional” immediately drives up expectations for the player in question, whether it’s warranted or not. Sports fans are a fickle bunch, and given enough reason or doubt will mercilessly taunt (more like attack) those whose performance they deem as not up to the expectations they had of the player, whether the player in question belongs to “their team” or not. With Day, we’ve now seen what the pressure of the term can do to those who are merely very good, rather than truly great. But there’s plenty of evidence from both him and comparisons to his same-aged peers that while he might be a mature person off the ice, his performance on the ice has not matched the persona given to him by the exceptional status.

For many elite talents, playing a level above their age group is seen as normal, rather than out of the ordinary. The mythos among hockey parents, with their penchant for pushing their young children a level above simply because they can, has created a gap between the original intentions of the separated age groups (to make sure that kids are not playing against competition that might be unsuitable for their development) and what they’re really looked at as now. But the junior leagues are not simply another level above. There are grown men, up to 21 years old, playing in the league. The majority of the players found are between 17 and 19 years old. This isn’t an 10-year old playing against 11-year olds, where their bodies may vary in size but only to a certain extent, there is a legitimate physical gap the size of a crevice between a 15-year old, possibly still in the middle of developing a deeper voice, and a legal adult.

We’ve seen great players develop without the need to enter the draft early. And we’ve seen enough talented young players pushed away from the sport to know that sometimes, hockey parents can take the sport a little too seriously.

There will always be elite players coming through the ranks, whether because they are legitimately skilled or are just more developed than their peers. For the best of the best, exceptional status simply helps them get to where they were headed slightly faster. But for the other dozens of talented young players, exceptional status might just push them to grow up faster than what their best interests would suggest.

If you’re going to give away exceptional status like cake, then maybe it’s time to rethink the term.

-Evan

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