Why Top Prospects isn’t just an all-star game

Damien Cox talks about the top prospects approaching the NHL draft, with some top rankings (aside from Auston Matthews) still being shuffled around.

No one noticed, but a couple of years back the CHL Top Prospects Game passed a threshold: the annual celebration of major-junior talent was older than the players on the ice.

It’s hard to believe that the first CHL Top Prospects Game goes back 20 years, at least until you start looking at the rosters from that original game.

Attention focused on defenceman Chris Phillips in that game and right now the first pick in the 1996 NHL Draft is in some sort of career limbo, neither retired nor sure that he’ll ever step on the ice in anything other than a ceremonial role. Others who played in that original game, the likes of Daniel Briere, Matt Bradley, Boyd Devereaux and a bench-load of others, have long left the game.

I remember working the first three prospects games, all played at Maple Leaf Gardens. On a conference call Wednesday, Don Cherry was recalling the early days of the event. From the beginning the die was cast: a team coached by Cherry would face a team coached by the sainted Bobby Orr. Apparently, whoever designed the game thought that talent on the ice wouldn’t have been enough to generate attention and needed assists from the two of the most famous brands in the game. I’ve always thought it was unnecessary and even distracted fans from the players themselves, but that’s show biz.

Cherry mentioned how he thought the original game was "going to be a piece of cake," which is to say a variation on the unwatchable free-skate that is the NHL All-Star Game.

"I walked in the room and [I realized] it’s not just an ordinary game," Cherry said. "The kids take it seriously."

I wasn’t so surprised. Really, the prospects game was just following in a tradition established by its forerunner, the CHL All-Star Game, a game pitting the host league’s best against a selection from the other two CHL leagues. And those games, not limited to draft-eligible players, were notoriously hot-blooded. At the ’95 affair, Bryan Berard and Terry Ryan dropped the gloves and went at it like two convicts fighting over a cigarette in the yard. (Even more memorable was the look on the face of then-agent Mike Barnett, who was sitting between the fathers of the two combatants.)

It’s not gang warfare or anything tribal about it, of course. Simply put, players go to the prospects game to be noticed to improve their draft stock. How or why they were noticed mattered not.

Cherry talked about how players "have to get their shifts," which seems reasonable. He remembered Briere (you can’t imagine his pronunciation) over-staying on his shifts which bothered the coach but almost certainly not as much as the other prospects.

Usually, when asked about the players from one year to the next, or from one generation to the next, Cherry sticks to rote lines about the players being a constant, that in personality a player from back in ’96 was no different than one from 2006 and likewise no different than anyone who’ll play in this year’s gala.

Cherry was slightly more expansive on Tuesday, though. He did note that contemporary players are bigger than those of previous generations, which would probably be born out by measurements if they were available and would be attributable to advances in training and nutrition. Certainly Windsor’s six-foot-six centre Logan Brown would stand above any crowd of elite prospects 20 years back.

Cherry also noted that today’s goaltenders are "giants" and you’d presume that would be true given the evolution of the game. The shift, though, may not play out quite so dramatically as you’d presume. Yes, this year’s most physically formidable goalie, Sherbrooke’s Evan Fitzpatrick, is at six-foot-four and 205 pounds gigantic next to, say, 1996 netminders Mathieu Garon and Craig Hillier. But Garon and Hillier were equal to the other three goalies in this year’s game: Moose Jaw’s Zach Sawchenko, Everett’s Carter Hart and Peterborough’s Dylan Wells. All fall an inch or two over six feet, all around 170 or 180 pounds. Equidistant between Gump Worsley and Ben Bishop.

One change I picked up on: the composition of the teams by origin. I took the rosters of the teams in the first three prospects games and came away with this count: from the OHL 66, from the WHL 53 and from the QMJHL 36. Compare that to this year’s rosters: 20 from the OHL, 12 from the WHL, and eight from the Q. I thought that there had been an unusual OHL bias to selection for those first prospects games but presumed there’d be an adjustment over time. Right now, though, it seems more extreme than ever.

Cherry’s memory might be spotty occasionally, no comment on his age so much as the hundreds of players who have passed through this game, touted prospects who went on to Hockey Hall of Fame-worthy careers, touted prospects who never played an NHL game and vanished from sight.

Example: Cherry mentioned on the conference call that he believed that Dan Cleary wouldn’t have been drafted if it hadn’t been for his play in the 1997 prospects game. It’s a great narrative, unknown bursting onto the scene, but alas it has no foundation in fact. Cleary was no obscurity. He had been receiving national attention as a phenom in Belleville for over a year—including a mention on Coach’s Corner. Just weeks before the prospects game, Cleary had been the last cut of the world junior team. As it turned out, a nice performance at the prospects game couldn’t prevent him sliding out of the top 10 in the NHL draft.

Cherry is right in spirit, however: the prospects game can turn into a shining moment for a player who isn’t in the first dozen names mentioned in the run-up to the event. Last year it was Ottawa’s Travis Konecny who burst on the scene and stole (a bit of) Connor McDavid’s thunder. Yeah, Konecny was going to be drafted even if he missed the contest but still … every year it turns out to be the same, the only all-star game that offers viewers a chance that their viewing will be rewarded.