By Kristina Rutherford in Erie, Penn.
By Kristina Rutherford in Erie, Penn.
Alex DeBrincat has spent a lifetime proving doubters wrong. As he closes in on OHL history with his third straight 50-goal season, what other evidence does he need to provide?

Alex DeBrincat’s 46th goal of the season brings the fans at Erie Insurance Arena to their feet and the team’s mascot, an otter named Shooter who wears light-up plush skates and a blue helmet, jumps up and down and pumps his fists. The crowd started cheering seconds ago in anticipation, when DeBrincat and Taylor Raddysh—two-thirds of one of the most potent lines in junior hockey—entered the Windsor Spitfires’ zone on a two-on-one rush. Raddysh saucered a pass over the stick of the Spitfires defender, and DeBrincat, primed for the one-timer, hammered it home. Not bad for a kid who says he doesn’t always aim when he shoots.

DeBrincat, who had to extend himself forward to get a good hold of the pass, tripped after getting the shot off and crashed into the end boards. Shooter, meanwhile, kept pumping his hockey glove-covered firsts. DeBrincat celebrates the 148th goal and 302nd point of his Ontario Hockey League career horizontally. It’s 1-0, Otters. They hang on for the W, 5-4, in overtime.

A day after the win, Erie’s 10th straight, the 19-year-old sits in the front row of the now quiet arena, where the lights haven’t yet been turned on for the afternoon’s off-day practice. It’s funny to hear a player on the cusp of OHL scoring history acknowledge that he has “a lot of critics,” but DeBrincat is a unique case. Now just three goals away from a third-straight 50-goal, 100-point season—a feat accomplished only once before, 40 years ago—DeBrincat still faces doubts about his talent. Some knock him for his height—five-foot-seven—others, for inflated numbers thanks to playing alongside elite linemates like Connor McDavid. But the kid Chicago selected at No. 39 in last year’s NHL Draft is used to being over-criticized and underrated. He may never quiet his doubters, but one thing is for sure: We have never seen a career quite like DeBrincat’s. And the biggest test is still ahead.

It was easy to pick out DeBrincat the first time he played in an organized game of hockey: He was the really small one. Kids have to be five to play minor hockey in Michigan, but Alex had just blown out the candles on his fourth birthday cake when his dad convinced a league in their hometown of Farmington Hills to let him play. Dave and Tracey DeBrincat’s youngest wouldn’t stop asking to be put on a team like his older brother, Andrew. He’d also been skating since he was two. “I walk in the locker room on the first day and all these kids are two feet taller than Alex, and their moms and dads are talking about homework,” Dave says.

It turned out most of DeBrincat’s teammates were in Grades 2 or 3. Alex was in pre-school. When Dave told his son there had been a mistake and they’d have to find a more age-appropriate situation, he got a firm answer back: “No, this is my team!” Dave gave in, and that set the tone for the majority of DeBrincat’s minor-hockey career: He would always be his team’s youngest, smallest and feistiest player. And, apart from that first season—when he finished No. 2 at age four—he’d also be its highest-scorer.

Between games and practices with the Farmington Fire, DeBrincat and Andrew, who now plays Div. 1 hockey at American International College, spent their free winter hours playing on the backyard rink. It had lights hung in the trees above and short wooden boards to keep the puck in play.

“The boards were about knee-high—low enough so my brother could hit me over them,” DeBrincat says, grinning, his bright white teeth flashing in the still-dark arena. “I got a lot of snow in the face.” Today, he sports a beard that helps him look closer to his 19 years, and Raddysh reports that “he’s trying to improve his style.” DeBrincat wears a Cubs ball cap (he was a Tigers fan until the day the Blackhawks drafted him), grey hooded sweatshirt, brown pants and black socks, having left his Air Jordans in the dressing room.

A four-year age advantage helped Andrew get away with those hits when they were kids, but DeBrincat was never one to take mistreatment lightly. Dave remembers back when he coached, “Alex would circle like a shark” when he got angry. Dave would have to yank him off the ice.

DeBrincat was a die-hard Red Wings fan who idolized Pavel Datsyuk. He had Wings-themed wallpaper on the red walls in his bedroom, a Wings blanket and sheets, and “maybe even a carpet, honestly,” he says. But despite looking up to a guy with silky hands nicknamed “The Magic Man,” eight-year-old Alex wanted to be a goalie, and even convinced his dad to buy him pads. His stint between the pipes lasted only a season or two, though, because it was trumped by his offensive production. “It was either we would lose 15-13 and he’d have nine goals, or we would lose 3-1 and he’d be in net,” Dave says.

The family lives about 20 minutes away from where the Plymouth Whalers used to play, and they got to a lot of games. From a young age, DeBrincat—named captain of a team of 13-year-olds at 10—dreamt of playing in the OHL. He was 14 and playing for an elite AAA club called Victory Honda when the Otters director of scouting, Scott Halpenny, saw him for the first time in 2012. Halpenny’s report on his team’s future all-time leading goal-scorer started with two words: “Tiny player.”

DeBrincat was five-foot-four, and with mom and dad in the crowd standing five-three and five-eight, respectively, nobody was putting money on a growth spurt. “We’d come to rinks and scouts would look at us and be like, ‘ugh,’” Dave says with a laugh. “I should have had some tall guy go to games and pretend to be me, or I could have worn platform shoes, or something.”

“Halpenny’s report on his team’s future all-time leading goal-scorer started with two words: Tiny player.”

All the words that followed the first two in Halpenny’s write-up were positive, though. And six months later, Otters GM Dave Brown watched DeBrincat put on a show in Detroit against a higher-ranked team full of elite prospects. “I think Alex had six points,” Brown says. “He was incredible.”

The Otters planned to put DeBrincat on their draft list that year, and the story of what derailed that plan depends on who you ask. The team wanted to speak to him first to ensure that if they drafted him, he’d come to camp. But either DeBrincat didn’t answer his phone (Brown’s version) or they lost his phone number (Halpenny’s) or he got a call from the Otters on the eve of the draft and the conversation was so short he figured there wasn’t much interest (DeBrincat’s). Whatever happened, the OHL draft came and went, and nobody picked DeBrincat, so he focused on the University of Massachusetts, the lone Div. 1 college to offer him a scholarship. It wasn’t even a full ride: They’d cover 85 per cent of his tuition.

The next season, DeBrincat played for the Lake Forest Caxys. (He’s not sure what a Caxy is, but knows “our mascot was a frog.”) He put up 111 points in 50 games. Still, Caxys coach Darrin Madeley couldn’t convince any programs to pursue his star player. “It didn’t matter what OHL team I talked to, what colleges I talked to that year,” says Madeley, a former goalie who played 39 games with the Ottawa Senators. “Nobody wanted him. They all said he was too small.”

But late that season a two-game series in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., happened to bring the Caxys to the same rink as Sherry Bassin, then-owner of the Otters. Bassin had made the trip against his better judgement—it was the dead of winter and he never wears socks—but he wanted to see a couple of prospects Erie had already drafted. “I’m thinking, these guys better be real good players. I’m using foul language,” Bassin recalls. The trip, he now concedes, was well worth it. “They drop the puck—whoop!” Bassin says. “Alex had three goals and two assists. He had one heck of a shot. He took faceoffs. He played every position. He played 200 feet. He was back-checking. You could see immediately how intelligent he was.”

Bassin and DeBrincat had a conversation after the game that included the Otters owner asking whether he would like to play in the OHL—and with McDavid. DeBrincat called his parents seconds after he and Bassin said goodbye. Dave’s sarcastic reaction when he heard his son would have a chance to play with McDavid: “Yeah, sure, that’ll happen.”

“He had one heck of a shot. He took faceoffs. He played every position. He played 200 feet. He was back-checking. You could see immediately how intelligent he was.”

But DeBrincat had made up his mind. “At that point, it was put all my marbles in one basket,” he says. “My goal wasn’t to play college hockey, it was to play in the NHL. The idea was to go for it. That day I met Sherry, it changed my life.”

By Halpenny’s count, there were scouts from three other OHL teams in Sault Ste. Marie. Bassin figures their eyesight was compromised, because the draft came and went, and the Otters—who didn’t put DeBrincat on their draft list for fear of drawing another team’s attention to him—signed him as a free agent ahead of the 2014-15 season.

Heading into training camp, DeBrincat remembers gripping his stick pretty tight. “I was scared, honestly,” he says. “I was just really hoping I’d make the team.”

Head coach Kris Knoblauch saw the kid they’d recently signed and figured DeBrincat would be a third- or fourth-liner. No one would have predicted back then that DeBrincat would win the OHL’s rookie of the year award, hit the 50-goal mark in three seasons and put up at least 100 points a year.

“I would have laughed,” DeBrincat says of the idea, shifting in his seat in the empty arena. “I don’t think anyone saw this coming.”

Dylan Strome sounds like a golfer in awe of a friend who keeps dropping unbelievable putts when he tries to explain why Debrincat—his best pal, roommate and left-winger—scores so much. “He scores on every shot he takes in practice, just about,” says Strome, the centreman on Erie’s No. 1 line. “Other guys on the team, we’re always looking at each other like, ‘How did that go in? How does he score from there when no one else can?’ It’s incredible. He shoots, it goes in.”

The NHL’s third-overall pick in 2015 starts considering some possible answers: “Maybe it’s his release,” he begins. That’s what you’ll notice first about a DeBrincat shot. The puck doesn’t sit on his tape for long, and he changes the angle the shot is coming from with a quick move.

Knoblauch has seen every one of DeBrincat’s 151 OHL goals, so many that there’s a type he now calls “typical.” These come when DeBrincat is in a high-percentage scoring area “and somebody’s all over him, in a good defensive position,” the coach says. “But he’s somehow able to find the puck, and he has this incredible release the goalie doesn’t pick up. Guys just don’t get those shots away in tight traffic like he does. That’s his exceptional skill.”

“He has this incredible release the goalie doesn’t pick up. Guys just don’t get those shots away in tight traffic like he does. That’s his exceptional skill.”

DeBrincat will admit he often surprises himself. It’s partly humility (“I get lucky a lot”), but it also proves the work he puts in over the summers, coming down the boards over and over again and getting a shot off as fast as he can, has paid off. “I remember my 50th goal last year,” he says, “I was at the blue line on the wall and I just shot it from there and it ended up going in.” What luck.

A game later, he recorded No. 51. DeBrincat needed one more goal to tie Christian Dvorak of the London Knights for the league lead at last season’s end. And he thought he had it in the final game of the year, when he tipped a Strome shot. “I ended up celebrating, but apparently Taylor tipped it, too,” he says. Raddysh got credit for the goal. “We joke with him all the time,” DeBrincat says. “Way to steal my goal.”

He’s much more focused on keeping the Otters on top of the Western Conference than winning the league goal-scoring title, but after two straight years as runner-up, DeBrincat is the overwhelming favourite. With 13 games to go, he has a 10-goal lead on Mississauga’s Owen Tippett.

As he nears that 50-goal mark for the third season in a row—he’s at 49, hit his 100th point in early February and has a 12-point lead on linemate Raddysh for the league scoring lead—there is a lot of talk about how DeBrincat pulled all those goals off. No one could possibly dispute that playing alongside McDavid as a rookie was huge: DeBrincat had 104 points and finished seventh in scoring with a whopping 59 points more than the next-best rookie. He became just the 25th first-year player in OHL history to hit the 100-point mark.

But even that year, DeBrincat proved he could score without McDavid. When the superstar broke his hand and missed nearly two months, DeBrincat still averaged more than a point per game. This season, in 27 games without Strome (the Otters’ all-time leading point-scorer, who spent the first part of the year with the Arizona Coyotes) DeBrincat scored 23 goals and had 27 assists with rookie Allan McShane as his centreman—good for 1.85 points per game, which tops his career average of 1.74. Says Knoblauch: “I don’t know how much more he has to do.”

If anything, the fact DeBrincat has proven he can play with McDavid and Strome confirms his ability to adapt to different playing styles at a high level. He had to be able to keep up with McDavid, who makes every play at top speed, and then shift to run in sync with Strome, who’s big on puck possession and slows the game down. “I just get in the right spot and they get me the puck,” DeBrincat says. “With each player, you gotta learn where to be at the right times, learn where they’re looking, and be there.”

That’s the thing, Raddysh says: “He’s always in the right spot.”

Teammates and coaches point to DeBrincat’s consistency. If you watch him play, chances are good you’ll see at least one of the following: He’ll score (151 goals in 178 games), register a point (309) or get in some kind of physical altercation with the other team after the whistle (numbers aren’t available, but Strome says, “He’s always in scrums”).

That last one provides plenty of evidence that DeBrincat means it when he says “in my mind, I’m no smaller than anyone else on the ice.” When he and Windsor’s Cristiano DiGiacinto chirp and shove each other in that mid-February Otters’ win, DeBrincat sports a huge smile on his face. His dad told him when he was young that smiling at a guy “just makes him more mad.” There’s a reason Knoblauch calls DeBrincat a “pit bull.”

Bassin remembers DeBrincat, in his rookie year, picking a fight with a guy who stood six-foot-four. “I said, ‘Don’t you have a mirror at home?’ He’s got no fear.”

Both Raddysh and Strome wonder what more evidence is needed to prove their linemate isn’t hindered by his size, even if they sometimes jokingly call him “Miles Finch” after Peter Dinklage’s character in the movie Elf. “His height is obviously a thing that people said was gonna hold him back,” Strome says. “And if they watch any one of the games we’ve played this year, they’d see that’s not a thing.”

DeBrincat—who prefers nicknames like “The Cat” and “Brinks”—will be the first to admit that part of his competitive drive comes from constantly having to prove himself. You can, it turns out, post statistics worthy of being a first-round pick in the NHL Draft and fall to the second. You can also lead the OHL in scoring and get cut from your national world junior team, even after making it the year before, as DeBrincat discovered this past December. He calls landing in Chicago “winning the lottery.” But not making the national team stung. “You want to show them what they’re missing,” he says.

“He scores on every shot he takes in practice, just about. Other guys on the team, we’re always looking at each other like, ‘How did that go in?'”

While an OHL scoring title and third 50-goal campaign would definitely show plenty of people, DeBrincat’s biggest goal this season is for it to end with a shot at the Memorial Cup. If the Otters can manage that for the first time since 2002, for DeBrincat it will be the storybook ending to one of the most unique junior hockey careers ever. “The focus is on finishing this season strong, and getting to that next step,” he says. “The real work starts now.”

Even after he hits the 50-goal milestone again DeBrincat doesn’t expect people to stop questioning him. No matter how well he plays, he figures there’ll be critics.

“I know what I’m capable of. A lot of people have doubted me throughout my whole career,” he says. “When you can prove them wrong, it’s sweet. Like, ‘Thanks for believing in me.’”

Photo Credits

Terry Wilson/OHL Images; Aaron Bell/OHL Images (2); B Wippert/Getty Images; Photo Illustration and Graphic by Drew Lesiuczok