Anthony Cirelli has been on two championship teams in his career, each unlikely stories in their own way. The first was in atom, where he was the 10-year-old captain of the Humberview Huskies in the Greater Toronto Hockey League. He played with friends from Woodbridge, and his father, Rocco, was on the bench. They were pretty good as A teams go, though the rival Vaughan Rangers seemed to have their number. The Huskies played them six times in league play and tournaments, and lost all six. Then they caught fire in the playoffs. Cirelli and Co. swept Vaughan in the conference final and didn’t lose a game in the final, either.
The second title on Cirelli’s resumé? That would be the 2015 Memorial Cup, where he became one of the most unlikely heroes in recent Canadian hockey history by using every ounce of the 165 lb. on his six-foot frame to wrestle free of his check in front of the Kelowna Rockets net and bang home the winning goal in overtime, giving him both goals in the Oshawa Generals’ 2–1 win in the last hockey game that will ever be played at the Colisée Pepsi.
After sealing the win, the 18-year-old Cirelli understandably lost his mind.
“The adrenalin was going. I was so excited, and all my teammates came over,” he says. “All I could say was, ‘We won, we’re champions!’ My parents came onto the ice, my mom was tearing up. They were proud of me. [But] they didn’t think this could have happened a year ago, either.”
No one did. By elite-hockey standards, Cirelli was barely on the radar.
He is now. Cirelli will be going for his third championship on Thursday night, this one the grandest yet as he and his Team Canada teammates will face down Team USA for the gold medal at the world juniors final in Montreal. Cirelli proved again his knack for timely offence on Wednesday night, scoring once and assisting on another goal in Canada’s 5–2 upset of Sweden.
The performance continues Cirelli’s unlikely climb to prominence that no one could have seen coming just a few years ago.
Cirelli has emerged as a vibrating reminder that quality hockey players can come from unexpected places. The top of the NHL Entry Draft in recent years has delivered a wave of elite young talent in recent years, as one would expect. From Aaron Ekblad to Connor McDavid to Auston Matthews and on and on the top of the draft has yielded rich fruit.
But in the salary-cap era, teams are made or broken by their ability to find players that come from off the radar. Even as the Detroit Red Wings dynasty finally appears to be crumbling, the knowledge that it was anchored by the likes of Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, future Hall of Famers taken in the sixth and seventh rounds respectively, is a lesson that will resonate for years. The success of players like Tyler Johnson—drafted in the 11th round by his hometown Spokane Chiefs of the Western Hockey League and unnoticed in the 2009 NHL Draft—has encouraged smart teams to take more risks in their talent evaluations.
But Cirelli—who parlayed his Memorial Cup heroics into being picked by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the third round of the 2015 draft—is proof that when it comes to identifying talent, hockey has a pretty major blind spot. Everyone can pick out the McDavids, but good teams in junior and the NHL are trying to find the Cirellis—kids who never got on the minor-hockey fast track and are at risk of being left behind.
“At the major junior level, there’s a passion to find guys in unheralded places,” Maple Leafs assistant GM Kyle Dubas, formerly of the Ontario Hockey League’s Soo Greyhounds, told me early in his Leafs tenure. “And in the NHL, the one thing I’ve seen… is the emphasis on not getting caught up in the prototypical way of looking at players; let’s try to dig deep and not get pigeonholed into looking for one specific type of player.”
The trick is overcoming the system that has produced so many great players. McDavid is a mainstream success story, as are most No. 1 picks. They flash their talent and drive early; they find their way to elite minor-hockey teams and spend their entire childhoods playing before a dazzled hockey community.
But it’s not an inclusive system. Some kids don’t grow soon enough. Some kids’ families don’t believe in having them train year-round or are unfamiliar with how the hockey machine works. Others can’t afford the additional time and training the best young players need.
Cirelli made the “mistake” of choosing to play with his friends. By the time he was ready to test himself in the elite ranks of the GTHL AAA loop—which draws kids from all over the Golden Horseshoe for a 12-team, top-heavy league—he found few takers. In his minor midget year, he played for a bottom-rung outfit. The same thing in his first year of midget.
“Not a lot of [OHL] teams were out to watch us,” Rocco says, “and our season was over in about January. We missed the playoffs, so no one could see us.”
Two years in a row, Cirelli watched the OHL Draft on his laptop as his dad puttered around the house, checking in occasionally if not optimistically. Both years he was passed over.
“He never said he was disappointed,” Rocco says. “But you could see it in his face.”
Luck intervened. He was supposed to play the 2014–15 season for the Mississauga Chargers of the Ontario Junior Hockey League, but head coach Joe Washkurak, who doubled as a scout with the Generals, was able to get him a tryout with Oshawa. Cirelli never looked back.
His 200-foot game immediately stood out to the Oshawa coaching staff. He was in the lineup on opening night, and it wasn’t long before he was playing on the top line with Michael Dal Colle, the fourth pick of the 2014 NHL Draft. He finished with more points as an OHL rookie (46, including playoffs) than he did in his minor midget and midget seasons combined. By season’s end, he was 67th on the Central Scouting ranking of North American skaters and then he heard the Lightning call his name on draft night. Now he’s the captain of the Generals and a hero on Team Canada.
He’s written his own story, a counterpoint to the Connor McDavid epic that will always be the headline act from the 2015 NHL draft. It’s unlikely and unbelievable and uplifting. It makes you wonder: How many more of these are waiting to be told?