31 Thoughts: Some good stories in tough times

Ron MacLean poses for a picture with Welland, Ontario's minor midget Tigers. (Welland Minor Hockey)

• Highlighting athletes whose playoff runs, careers were cut short by COVID-19 shutdown
• Leafs, Coyotes competing for Barabanov
• Could Saskatchewan be a neutral NHL playoff site?

Hope everyone is safe and healthy.

The latest edition of 31 Thoughts: The Podcast dropped this morning. We appreciate our listeners — without you, there’d be nothing — and understand this is an anxious time for all. The opening section is an interview with Michael Gervais, who hosts the excellent Finding Mastery podcast.

Dr. Gervais worked with Pete Carroll on the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks. His emphasis: cultivating mental skills critical to elite performance. We asked him for some strategies to help people manage their way through the pandemic. Even if you refuse to listen to anything Jeff and I say (and really, who can blame you?), listen to what Gervais has to say. It’s worth your time.

I really enjoyed it, and hope you will too.

Right now, I’m reading The Ride of a Lifetime by Robert Iger. Iger, who started at the bottom, is Disney’s Chairman. One passage from the book really stood out to me. Iger talks about Michael Eisner, his predecessor, in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks:

[blockquote]In many ways, (Michael) handled the trouble to come admirably and stoically, but it was impossible not to fall prey to pessimism and paranoia as the stress became more intense. I would occasionally answer my phone and Michael would be on the line saying that he’d just been in the shower, or on a plane, or in a conversation over lunch, and had become convinced that something we were doing was going to fail, someone was going to overtake us, some deal was going to go south. He would literally say to me, ‘The sky is falling,’ and over time a sense of doom and gloom began to permeate the company.
Michael had plenty of valid reasons to be pessimistic, but as a leader you can’t communicate that pessimism to the people around you. It’s ruinous to morale. It saps energy and inspiration. Decisions get made from a protective, defensive posture…. No one could have handled the stress that Michael was under perfectly, but optimism in a leader, especially in challenging times, is so vital. Pessimism leads to paranoia, which leads to defensiveness, which leads to risk aversion.
Optimism sets a different machine in motion. Especially in difficult moments, the people you lead need to feel confident in your ability to focus on what matters, and not to operate from a place of defensiveness and self-preservation. This isn’t about saying things are good when they’re not, and it’s not about conveying some innate faith that “things will work out.” It’s about believing you and the people around you can steer toward the best outcome, and not communicating the feeling that all is lost if things don’t break your way. The tone you set as a leader has an enormous effect on the people around you. No one wants to follow a pessimist.[/blockquote]

If you don’t believe in your leaders, you can lead yourself. That’s what I remind myself — especially now.



1. Thank you to WEEI Boston’s The Greg Hill Show for doing the investigative reporting we all needed. Tuukka Rask guested on Tuesday, and was asked about Zdeno Chara’s assertion that the goalie is rotten to the core.

“He’s been sitting behind me on the bus for whatever, 10 to 12 years now,” Rask said. “Occasionally, I might eat a bad meal or something, passing gas on the bus, so I think that left a mark.”

2. My son’s school has done an excellent job of making available between two and four online classes per day. It’s huge for us. Like most kids, he’ll listen to anyone else before he listens to his parents.

As of Wednesday morning, the NHL and NHLPA made their Future Goals program available to teachers and parents. There are two components. One is “Hockey Scholar” — an interactive hockey-themed STEM curriculum for middle-school and elementary-school students. Examples: Exploring the engineering behind hockey equipment, and geometric constructions/how angles are a key component of the game. The second is “Healthier Me” — a program providing elementary-school students tools to make healthy decisions.

3. Some work continues, as normally as possible. OHL Saginaw’s Cole Perfetti, who will be a high first-round selection in the upcoming draft, said he’s had four phone interviews this week with NHL clubs. What was the weirdest question asked?

“I wouldn’t say there was anything weird,” he said Tuesday night. “But the hardest question was, ‘Would you rather lose in a blowout or in a heartbreaking game?’ I didn’t know how to answer it.”

So what did you say?

“I said, ‘Losing sucks. Either way, they are both terrible ways to lose.’”

I’d fail these tests, because I’d mock those kinds of questions. But that’s a good answer.

4. Perfetti had an intelligent comment about the draft’s uncertain timeline.

“It’s a little scary and a little nerve-wracking, but it’s also a blessing in disguise. I will take the time to get a lot stronger and more physically mature. You know the day will still happen.”

Right attitude.

5. If Perfetti was worried about finding things to do when he returned to the family home in Whitby, Ont. — mother Sandra made sure he wouldn’t be bored.

“She’s loving having us clean the house,” he laughed. “The backyard, garage, furnace room — I’ve cleaned and rearranged my room, made multiple runs to the dump…. The house is looking pretty good right now, better than ever.”

Another form of motivation came from an old family friend, Kris Draper. Perfetti played with Draper’s son, Kienan, in minor hockey and billeted in Saginaw with a family that is close to the 1,157-game NHL veteran.

“It seems like no one’s doing anything, but (Kris) said there’s someone across the world working harder than me right now — someone who wants to be the best.”

(Let me just say I love this line. Because it is true.)

“He’s told me I have the skills and assets to be an elite-level player, but I have to want to be the hardest worker out there.”

Last year, he hired Peter Renzetti as his strength and conditioning coach. Renzetti, who used to work for Detroit and Toronto, changed Perfetti’s mindset.

“He pushed me to a new level. I remember the first day I was there he put 40-pound vests on the guys, had them run and jump over hurdles on a hill. I thought it was a joke — ‘Is this for real?’” says Perfetti, clearly smiling at the memory. “He doesn’t sugarcoat things, but he does care. He’s pushing us in the gym, up our asses a little bit to make sure we are working. He tests your limits, wants to see if you’ll work outside your comfort zone. I learned a lot about myself last summer.”

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6. Perfetti will have to be resourceful to find somewhere to shoot.

“I used to have a net in my backyard, a perfect shooting pad. When I was younger, I didn’t have a great shot. Soft. But as I got to Minor Midget it was better. I’d shoot it off the crossbar, and into the next door neighbour’s backyard. He had this big eight-by-10 window, and there were pucks landing below it. He came over to the house livid, fuming: ‘Please don’t shoot pucks anymore — you’ll break my window.’”

7. I’m getting old, exhibit No. 5,621: Heard an old summer camp/university friend’s son is a WHL Draft prospect. Good luck to Andrew Cristall, son of Alex and Jodi.

8. A little business: For some time, the NHL’s been working on new transfer agreements with the various international federations. The project gained traction, and there is tentative agreement to an eight-year template with all countries interested in participating. The new formula switches off from a “per-player fee” in favour of moving to three components of compensation: an amount based exclusively on where players are drafted from; an amount based on where those signed to NHL contracts played the four years before signing; and an amount based on how many players from particular areas play 30 or more NHL games each year. (It still needs Board of Governor approval.) There was also conversation about the possibility of players who go back overseas at the start of the season being available later in the year.

9. There’s so much uncertainty about where we’re going from a financial perspective that many ideas are being thrown around. Estimated losses of $220 million are projected if this year’s paused games are made up, including the playoffs. (That would likely add four percentage points of escrow to players’ paycheques.)

Projected losses if there’s no season are closer to $1.1 billion, and 35 per cent escrow whenever we resume. One idea: allowing players and teams to defer money. For example, a player with a five-year contract at a $5-million AAV would still have that term and cap hit, but could agree to hold some of the payments. Teams would get a break on cash flow, and players could save until escrow was lowered. Don’t know if it will happen, but spitballing never hurts. Both the NHL and NHLPA would have to agree. Also, the players will decide what to do about their final paycheque by next week.

10. Similar to that, will upcoming free agents try to back-load their next contracts?

11. One exec wants me to push Saskatchewan as a playoff “hub” site if that method is necessary.

“Not too populous and back to our roots,” he said.

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12. Arizona presented to Alexander Barabanov on Tuesday. They possess more cap space for bonuses than Toronto. The Maple Leafs have worked him hard, however.

13. Nashville and the Rangers gave Calgary a run for Connor Mackey.

14. A couple of weeks ago, Mark Letestu chatted about Edmonton’s 2017 playoff victory over San Jose. When he mentioned he’s still friendly with Cam Talbot, I asked what he texted the Flames goalie after the fight with Mike Smith.

“I texted him the same thing his wife probably said to him: There’s two guys in the league wearing pads that you don’t fight: Smith and (Robin) Lehner. Those two you leave alone.”

15. The NHLPA released its annual Players’ Poll on Tuesday. It wasn’t until Andrew Walker informed me on Sportsnet 650 Vancouver that I heard there was a Twitter controversy about 41.55 per cent of the voters picking Carey Price as the league’s best goalie.

This reminds me of an old conversation I had with Kelly Hrudey. He had one season where he was third in the league with an .897 save percentage. We joked about how if you had that percentage now, you wouldn’t be anywhere near the NHL. Then Kelly added, “Winners only care about one stat — can you get the ‘W?’”

I’ve never forgotten that. No matter what’s happened in Montreal, players think Price gets them that win. As the NHL moves further into the analytic world — and it will — successful people will be the ones who balance both mentalities.

16. Not long after life ground to a halt, ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt crowdsourced a great idea. He called it “Senior Night” — acknowledging high school and college athletes whose seasons ended abruptly, without a chance to compete in one final playoffs. It’s excellent, and I wanted to emulate that here. Thank you for your suggestions. Because this is a written format, I couldn’t highlight as many as Van Pelt did. But here are 11 stories I hope you will enjoy.

Tori MacPherson. (Northern Subway Selects)

We start with a situation where, with a bit of mercy, there could be change. Tori MacPherson was born Oct. 1, 2002. That’s what’s called a “bad birthdate” for hockey in Nova Scotia, because those born before Jan. 1, 2003, started playing before they began primary school. Now, after an excellent season with the Northern Subway Selects in the province’s Female Midget AAA Hockey League, MacPherson’s eligibility is up, even though she’s entering Grade 12. That “bad birthdate” rule was later changed, but her year was not grandfathered in.

“It particularly effects the female side of the game, more than male,” said Craig Clarke, her coach. “I’ve had (Canadian university) coaches reach out, asking if she’s willing to play for them next year because they think she’s graduating. When I tell them Tori still has Grade 12, the reaction is, ‘Ahhhhhhhh, you’re kidding me!’ If she doesn’t get to play next year, the odds will be tougher on her, because coaches will want those who are actually playing. She is good enough for the next level. Parts of her game have to improve, but she’s an elite skater.”

MacPherson had 31 points in 23 games, third in team scoring. (She was first in assists, with 22.) The website myhockeyrankings.com had her team 16th in Canada among Under-17 Tier I girls’ teams.

“I believe we were headed to the Atlantic Finals. Won our last game 5–0, outshot (our opponent) something like 45–15, I liked the way we were going. We had a shot at reaching the Esso Cup — you never know what can happen. But for Tori, this is not someone who was a minor hockey prodigy by any means. She kept working to get better. If she was finished school and could immediately go to university, fine. But this can be fixed so she can have a legit possible shot at the next level.”

Is there a good reason an exception can’t be made?

17. The true highlight of our conversation with Craig was when he informed me that Ken Reid’s high school nickname was “houseplant,” because he didn’t go out much — aside from playing sports.

Ron MacLean poses for a picture with Welland, Ontario’s Minor Midget ‘A’ Tigers.

18. Rogers Hometown Hockey visited Welland, Ont., last Nov. 10. The No. 12 jersey Ron MacLean is holding in the photo above is in honour of Liam Boverhof, a Major Midget player who took his own life just days before the broadcast. Mike Bray, the person in glasses hiding at the back of the above photo, is the coach of this team.

“I had coached Liam,” he said. “That shook up the whole organization. No one knew of any issues. He was always smiling, never once would he walk by and not stop and shake your hand. There was never any indicator at all.”

Bray pauses.

“It’s weird to say, but success comes from how you deal with such things.”

One of the Minor Midget players, Jacob Passmore, switched from No. 12 to No. 27, so Boverhof’s number could be “retired.” One month later, Welland’s Minor Midgets added another tribute, for the No. 77 worn by Alex Luey.

Alex, as many of you are aware, formed a friendship with Alex Ovechkin during a lengthy fight with cancer. He died on Dec. 22.

“Although he was from Niagara Falls, our players knew him,” Bray said. “They’d played against him. The morning he passed, we were scheduled to play Niagara Falls that night. We thought they’d likely cancel the game. Instead, they insisted nothing stops — we’d continue to play — because Alex would have wanted it. It was an emotional night. We took a jersey with his number and hung it behind our bench.”

Welland is a single-A team, and while they lost only once at that level, “we got our butts kicked” at some AA events, Bray said. Over the Christmas holidays, the Tigers won the Richard Bell Memorial Tournament in Oakville, “which was a turning point for us.” Welland would win the Niagara District playoffs and moved through the Ontario Minor Hockey Association’s post-season. These were six-point series. They won the first two games over St. Thomas before running into trouble at Joe Thornton Community Centre.

“They were one of those teams you can’t get rid of. They won two in a row, and scored late in Game 5 to cut our lead to 4-3. We spent the last 15 seconds trying to get the puck out and won it.”

Next was a 6–0 sweep of Hespeler, putting them in the final against Orillia. But they never got to play.

“It was so hard to tell them,” Bray said, the emotion clear in his voice. “They’re 15 years old — they’re asking, ‘What does this mean? When do we get to play?’ And you have to explain it is not going to happen.”

I hope that with time, these young men understand what they accomplished in honour of two players. Sometimes it’s more about the journey than the results.

Anthony Popovich stops a shot while playing for the Guelph Storm at the 2019 Memorial Cup. (Andrew Vaughan/CP)

19. Five years ago, the OHL’s Plymouth Whalers moved to Flint. The Firebirds had one winning season in its first four, a .369 points percentage and made the playoffs once (a five-game defeat). It was not a model franchise. In September, they acquired goalie Anthony Popovich from defending-champion Guelph. Popovich had backstopped the Storm to the Memorial Cup semifinal, but with talented Nico Daws ready to play, they had a surplus. Never drafted in the NHL, Popovich was trying out for the Red Wings at their rookie tournament in Traverse City when it happened.

“I had a feeling I was going to get traded,” Popovich said. “Some people thought it was a waste to go to Flint. Looking back, it was the best spot for me.”

His new goalie coach was a fiery, determined competitor who played 299 NHL games for Detroit.

“It’s been real tough here,” said Greg Stefan, who coached 2006 Conn Smythe Trophy winner Cam Ward on that Carolina Stanley Cup champion. “The second skate on the ice with him, you could hear the comments in practice from the veteran guys. ‘I like this guy,’ they were saying. I knew right away. His professionalism, character, work ethic, how he was a teammate, unselfish. He wins a championship, then is willing to come to an organization that struggled. He didn’t care about the negativity. He wanted that challenge.”

The Firebirds opened at Sault Ste. Marie, in a down year for the Greyhounds. They lost 6–3.

“I remember some of the guys thought that was going to be an easy night,” Popovich said. “It turned out the opposite.”

The next game was 24 hours later in Saginaw, a better opponent. Flint won 4–1.

“He stood on his head,” Stefan said. “He proved it to me. He can have a bad game, but not the next one. When you have a team that believes in their goalie, it goes a long way. We needed something like that for (captain Ty Dellandrea), who went through everything here.”

The Firebirds won 15 in a row from Jan. 19 through Feb. 21, and hit the end of the season fifth in the league with 82 points.

“I’ve never been part of something like that,” Popovich said. “We packed our rink. The fans here deserved that after those tough years. My three years in Guelph, we saw Flint as an easy night. Those times are over. Flint has changed — now it is a winning culture. The year was so quick but I loved it.”

If Popovich goes the university route, he’s looking at Queen’s.

“(Stefan) would always say to me, ‘You know when you’re in pro next year’ — that was a confidence booster. I’d never hesitate to say yes to that — hopefully that opportunity comes my way.”

“His mentality will take him farther than he expects,” Stefan adds. “I’m disappointed this had to end. What a special group of young men.”

20. If you’re too young to remember Stefan as an NHLer, well, he never backed down from a fight. Do any of his players look up the videos?

“You mean the Willi Plett?” he laughs. “The game has changed for the better, but they are fond memories. Sometimes, the players will come into the room, pull up my YouTube stuff. They get a kick out of it.”

Jadon Joseph. (Brett Cullen)

21. Jadon Joseph’s WHL career comes to an end after being included in five trades that involved six other players and 13 draft picks. But if you want to put a number by his name, it should be 58. That’s what he’s most proud of: 58 playoff games in three seasons.

“I don’t know how many players would get to say that,” he says. “It was a pretty crazy experience, but I wouldn’t take any of it back. So many connections, meeting so many different people, growing as a person and a player. Things happen for a reason.”

Drafted by Lethbridge in 2014, he would join the Hurricanes two years later. Joseph played 20 playoff games in 2017, including a Game 7 overtime defeat of Medicine Hat in the second round. Then the league’s No. 1 team, Regina, beat them in six games in the Eastern Final.

In 2018, they beat Red Deer and Brandon before another Eastern Final loss — to Swift Current. That June, three teammates were burned during a campfire.

“That’s why the trade from Lethbridge to Regina was the hardest one. Lethbridge was a second home for me. We were like a family. After that fire, it solidified how close we were. I never guessed I would have been moved.”

Joseph would play just 13 games for the Pats.

“Not all trades work out the way everyone plans. It just wasn’t a good fit.”

He was dealt to Vancouver, where he re-united him with a childhood teammate, Dylan Plouffe. The Giants were the Western Conference’s No. 1 seed and went 12-3 in dispatching Seattle, Victoria and Spokane. That took them to the WHL championship against the only team to finish higher in the regular season, Prince Albert. The Raiders won Game 7 in overtime to go to the Memorial Cup. Joseph doesn’t like to talk about that one.

“It was extremely hard — I’m not going to lie.”

The 2019-20 season would be just as tumultuous. The Giants had too many overagers.

“There were seven 20-year-olds, all good players. It was a tough position for us and the GM.”

Vancouver sent him to Moose Jaw. The Warriors were 40 games under .500 when the season ended.

“They had 10 17-year-olds, and asked me to help develop the young guys, show them the ropes. After each trade, I’d get on the phone with my dad. He’d say what he had to say, but then we always focussed on the positive. Never put yourself in a negative mindset. I wanted to be the guy to go in and make the difference. I was not going to be bitter.”

Moose Jaw was honest with Joseph, promising they would eventually move him back to a playoff team. That happened in November, when he was dealt to Kelowna. The Rockets were to be the Memorial Cup host. But when an injury situation healed, they also found themselves with an extra 20-year-old. Joseph was off to Tri-City, where he finished his junior career on a team that wouldn’t have been in the playoffs.

Honestly, when I go back and read this “thought,” it comes across as grossly unfair. Joseph, however, found a silver lining. Two seasons ago, he was limited to 53 games because of a leg problem. It took a long time to pin down the exact issue, but after a visit to a physiologist at Winsport in Calgary, Joseph has a better understanding.

“The lactic acid was building up in my legs — it couldn’t clear out. We think it has to do with overtraining… the wrong kind of training. We can take the extra time this summer to buckle down and get a handle on it. I want to see where I can go from here. I know there’s a lot of work ahead, but that doesn’t matter to me.”

He says the doctors there call him “a thoroughbred,” so he’s excited to be fully healthy.

22. Joseph is an excellent face-off man.

“I take huge pride in that. I watch a ton of video of Sidney Crosby. It blows my mind how strong he is. He has his hands so high on the stick. Patrice Bergeron, too.”

His first WHL season, he was put in a shutdown role against Brandon’s Nolan Patrick, who would be the second-overall pick in the 2017 NHL draft.

“I would always be matched up against him.”

How’d you do?

“I had my way in the faceoff circle.”

That’s about as boastful as he gets. He’s earned it; that was a hard road.

Will and Beck Warm. (WHL)

23. Twins Will and Beck Warm were born on April 22, 1999.

“I am older by one minute,” Will says.

Do you remind Beck of that?

“Not as much these days, but definitely growing up.”

They grew up in Whistler, deciding to focus on hockey as they became teenagers.

“We always had each other to push each other,” Will adds, “but we were both terrible losers.”

It was perfect because he was a defenceman and Beck played goal. One could shoot, one happily played net. They played together through their BC Major Midget days with the Vancouver NW Giants. Will was selected 108th in the 2014 WHL Draft by Edmonton. Beck wasn’t taken.

“I was really disappointed,” Beck said. “But quitting was not even in the cards — not even a question. The only thing that changed was my mindset to work even harder.”

Tri-City listed Beck, and he’d actually make his WHL debut first. That was Feb. 28, 2015, in Spokane. He was 15. The Americans, outshot 39-23, lost 8–1.

“It wasn’t great,” he says now. “I was not ready enough for it. In Spokane — 10,000 people. After the game I was upset at the final score, although I could find some happiness with the way I played. I made a lot of saves.”

In 2016-17, they were apart for the first time.

“We were a bit shellshocked,” Will said. “At the start, we’d FaceTime very night — talked and texted. As time went on, we’d speak a little less, probably FaceTime a couple of times per week. I’m grateful for how close we are.”

Will was happy with that season, 24 points in 67 games as a rookie for the Oil Kings. Beck played 10 games as the Americans acquired a 20-year-old goalie (Rylan Parenteau) to go with a 19-year-old (Evan Sarthou).

“Rylan was unbelievable. He showed me the ropes. The team asked what I wanted to do, because I was going to be third on the depth chart and wouldn’t play a game after Christmas. I wanted to stick it out. The way we were raised was nothing is ever given to you…. Work for everything you get. We never had a quit mentality. I appreciated Will being there for me, his support. When we were FaceTiming, it was not even too much talking about our situations. More small talk. I just wanted to talk about anything else.”

Beck was really proud that after being told he wouldn’t get another game, he did get one.

24. Beck played 35 games in 2017–18. Will suffered a shoulder injury that limited him to 53. On June 12, 2018, his billet father, Garett Grant, died in a motorcycle accident. He was 43, leaving behind wife Michelle and daughter Kennedy.

“He really helped that family get through it,” Oil Kings GM Kirt Hill said.

“It was shocking,” Will adds. “I wanted to stay and help them. It helped me to be there for them.”

Five games in to the 2018–19 year, he suffered a knee injury that knocked him out months.

“I trained really hard to get back. It was a tough stretch for me, but that’s part of the process. You have to handle adversity as part of your journey. I was out four months, and the team told me I could go home if I wanted. But I wanted to stay and be around the team. I could still be productive…. If not making a difference on the ice, I could use my position as a WHL player to make a difference in the community.”

What meant the most to you?

“I enjoyed spending time at Ronald McDonald house in Edmonton. On Thursdays I’d go for a couple hours, do crafts with the kids. The best part was how excited how they got.”

How are you at crafts?

“I’m terrible,” he laughs.

Will returned for the WHL playoffs, appearing in all 16 of Edmonton’s games as the Oil Kings lost to Prince Albert in the Eastern Conference Final. Meanwhile, Beck established himself as Tri-City’s No. 1, playing 61 games. The Americans lost in the first round of the playoffs, to Everett. Both celebrated in May when Will received the Doug Wickenheiser Award as WHL Humanitarian of the Year. It was a huge lift as they quietly faced another challenge. Their mother, Wendi, had been diagnosed with breast cancer. The Oil Kings did right by Will, trading him to Victoria so he, like his brother, could be closer to home. Happily, Will says, Wendi is doing well.

“The past year was tough on our family,” he said. “She’s such a strong woman — it is inspiring to watch her go through it. She showed us what an incredible woman she is.”

25. As the 2019–20 season progressed, Edmonton needed an older goalie to mentor 17-year-old Sebastian Cossa. Hill’s target was obvious.

“I knew who would help him go to the next level. Beck is just like his brother. If he wasn’t a goalie, he could have worn a letter.”

Edmonton traded for Beck on New Year’s Day.

“It is remarkable how well they dealt with everything. They bring so much to the organization, so far beyond their years. They helped our group so much. So many emotions, life-altering events, and they were always so mature.”

Of course, Beck moved in with the Grants.

“Michelle, at first, said we were really different,” Will said. “Then they’d be in different rooms, hear Beck talk, and think it was me…. (Going to Edmonton) was a good fit for him, and great for (the Grants), too.”

How did Beck’s new Oil Kings teammates compare him to Will?

“They said I was a bit more of a comedian in the room than he was.”

After everything the Warms went through, their WHL careers ended positively. On Feb. 22, Wendi dropped the puck at the game-opening ceremonial face-off before Victoria beat Kelowna in a shootout. Will took that draw.

Did she give you a good drop?

“Yes,” Will answered. “But I told her to make sure she did. That night is one I will remember a long, long time. The Royals are a great organization. This year was awesome — we proved a lot of people wrong.”

Victoria was second in its division.

“We should be up 2-0 in our first series of the playoffs right now. My mom told me to write down a selection of all the good memories of junior hockey. Just to remember.”

Edmonton was excellent. First in the Eastern conference by 11 points.

“The depth we had in Edmonton, it was crazy,” Beck says. “It was going to be hard for any team in WHL to keep up with that.”

The brothers are eying pro situations, although everything’s up in the air at this time.

“If we want to go to school to play together, we’re leaning towards McGill,” Will says.

Wherever they go, they will leave an impact.

“Our parents taught us that being a good person is important,” Beck says. “Hockey ends, but your reputation lives forever. This taught me so many lessons about myself. If something is not handed to you, you can get it if you work for it.”

26. The brothers say they’re pretty good golfers. If I had to bet the mortgage on a five-foot putt, who am I taking?

“I’d say me,” Beck answered.

Jeremy McKenna. (Daniel St. Louis)

27. There’s a new ping-pong table at the McKennas’ home in Summerside, P.E.I. — a good time-filler when needed.

“It’s pretty competitive here,” Jeremy McKenna says with a laugh.

Father Mark played hockey at UPEI, competed in both hockey and tennis at the Canada Games.

“Now I can take him one-on-one, but he was a hard-nosed defenceman. We still talk every day.”

Mother Sara captained the Panthers’ soccer team. All three of Jeremy’s sisters are athletes, too, and Jeremy says the eldest, Georgie, is the most competitive in the family. But he’s not afraid of the unknown.

While he eventually joined the QMJHL’s Moncton Wildcats in the 2016–17 season, Jeremy first spent two years at the famed Notre Dame Academy in Wilcox, Sask., before trying something much different — a year at the Red Bull Academy in Salzburg, Austria, as a 16-year-old.

Brian Savage, who played 674 NHL games was his coach. Noah Dobson of the Islanders, Calgary prospect Martin Pospisil, and Savage’s son Ryan became good friends.

“It wasn’t so much the games that helped,” McKenna said. “It was spending the time in the gym and practice. It’s tough to pick the best experience, but I do remember the last tournament of the season in Prague. That year we had, how lucky we were to be there.”

No 1999-born player scored more CHL goals than McKenna’s 137. But it didn’t start easily. After graduating league-leading scorer Conor Garland, among others, the Wildcats team that McKenna joined back in 2016 knew they would be challenged.

“We didn’t have a great team. We lost 25 in a row. We were the worst team in franchise history.”

But, to a young man who still has a weekend 8:00 a.m.–2:00 p.m. summer job at his parents’ Granville Street Diner, there was only one solution: roll up your sleeves and do your part to make things better. McKenna went from 26 points, to 77, to 92. The Wildcats went from 31 points, to 62, to 85 and won a pair of seven-game first-round series.

The right people noticed. Last summer, McKenna attended development camps with Dallas and Calgary. The Flames offered him an AHL deal. Born in Alberta, with his earliest hockey memories being the Flames’ 2004 trip to the Stanley Cup Final, it was an easy choice.

“I went into training camp ready to go. [But when] they brought in Zac Rinaldo and Tobias Rieder on tryouts, and when they made the team, it pushed Alan Quine and Dillon Dube back to the AHL. I thought it would be better to go back to junior for my final year, chase the Memorial Cup and finish what we started. That excited me. I had no hard feelings towards Calgary at all.”

Moncton was ranked third in the CHL when play ended.

“We had a 16-game winning streak. I played some of my best hockey personally. I met great people in Moncton. I can’t thank them enough. Roger Shannon drafted me, Ritchie Thibeau (the assistant director of hockey operations). I want to be positive, everybody is sacrificing right now.”

That includes his parents, with their restaurant.

“It’s a rough patch, and that motivates me. I know things are uncertain now, but whatever happens I’m prepared. I’ll be ready when my opportunity comes.”

Jincy Dunne. (David Berding)

28. Jincy Dunne didn’t need the power to read minds.

“No one said it out loud,” she said this week, “but they were definitely thinking it.”

On Jan. 12, 2015, Dunne had scored the golden goal in overtime to give the U.S. a 3–2 victory over Canada in the Under-18 World Championships. Months later, it was time to pick an NCAA school.

“When I have a lot of options, I don’t do well with decisions,” she laughs. “My older sister went to Ohio State and I fell in love with the school. There was no reason it shouldn’t be on the map, with that Buckeye pride.”

But it wasn’t yet on the map, and it would’ve been fair for people to wonder why she chose the way she did. In 16 seasons, the Buckeyes had never finished higher than fourth in conference play. Recovering from a concussion, Dunne sat out her first year as a redshirt freshman, while the team went 10-25-1. She had a letter on her jersey the moment she could play and is the fourth defenceman in the past decade to be first- or second-team all-American three times. More importantly, the team went to the Frozen Four for the first time ever in 2018.

“We built a great culture, a team full of girls who didn’t want drama. We enjoyed the time we had together. A group like that, you do it for the person next to you. When you have something like that, it’s too special to throw away. The most wins in program history, the most wins in a season, the most consecutive wins. That group was so fun, the bench so lively. Everyone had value.”

They were at the airport in Minnesota two years ago waiting to see if they’d get a shot at the Frozen Four.

“We were so nervous. I still get chills every time I watch the video. The relief was incredible — we had no doubt we’d win if we got in.”

Their quarterfinal was against Boston College.

“That was one of the best games we played,” Dunne said of the 2-0 win.

They lost the semifinal to top-seeded Clarkson, 1–0 in overtime.

“We had a goal called off early. I thought we dominated. But you know on some goals you can tell there’s a breakdown in play? As it was happening, I was thinking, ‘Oh no, this is not good.’”

This year was to be their second chance. On back-to-back nights (March 7 and 8), the Buckeyes won overtime games against Minnesota and Wisconsin to win their first conference championship in school history.

“It was not good enough to be there. We were going to win — we have to win. We were fired up, but exhausted from the night before. Minnesota gave us everything. But to be on the ice with so many family members — great families, parents and siblings can make your experience so much better. I will never forget celebrating that.”

The players were preparing to head to the national championships when the season was cancelled.

“Me and my fellow seniors, we weren’t prepared for that being the last game we were going to play. It was heartbreaking. But, those of us who came to Ohio State lasted, and (we) came out leaving the program better than when we found it. I can confidently say players would know if they called and asked, I would do anything to help them. Together we were able to do that. We got to say that we did win the best conference in the country. We were so lucky and blessed to be at Ohio State. I was unsure about a lot of things, but this turned out better than I dreamed of.”

Rylan Toth. (Bob Frid/UBC Thunderbirds)

29. In the Canada West portion of USports hockey, it is all about Alberta and Saskatchewan. The last school other than the Golden Bears or Huskies to win that conference was Calgary in 1996–97. UBC, with 23 points in their 29 regular-season games, was not expected to break that trend. First, they had to get through fourth-place Mount Royal, 15 points better than the Thunderbirds in the regular season. And, due to the league’s travel challenges, Mount Royal got to host all three games.

UBC won Game 1 and lost Game 2. The decider was the third game in three days. UBC led 3–0 before giving up a goal with 0:07 to go in the first. The Thunderbirds went up three, but then gave up another goal 58 seconds later. They led by two with 10 minutes remaining in regulation. The Cougars tied it with one second left.

“I couldn’t move my legs anymore in the third,” laughed UBC goalie Rylan Toth. “They got a power play, and on a six-on-four were just zinging the puck around.”

I asked him to rate the goal on the Braden Holtby scale of “should’ve had it/could’ve had it/no freaking way.”

“I’d love to say (I had) no chance,” Toth answered, “but for me, something more could’ve been done. It was a backdoor one-timer with a lot of traffic. I like to think I could’ve had it, but it was close to unstoppable. It was a great play.”

UBC’s head coach is Sven Butenschoen, who played 140 NHL games with Pittsburgh, Edmonton, the Islanders and Vancouver.

“Sven was the first one in our room, during the intermission. He told us, ‘We’re gonna have some bad bounces along the way. Why can’t we win this?’ His approach is about positivity, one of the most caring and genuine people you’ll ever meet. He wants the best for you, wants to do anything he can to help. That goes a long way.”

Auston Vetterl scored at 12:52 of overtime to win it for UBC.

Toth previously played in the WHL for Red Deer and Seattle.

“When you win there, you’re still kids and you’re not always allowed to go out. Here, it was a bunch of older guys who’d never won. We went out together and had a fun night in Calgary. Great memory.”

Then came Alberta, again all on the road.

“It was the least pressure I’ve ever felt to play. We’d finally won a series. We were playing with house money.”

Toth made 51 saves in a Game 1 overtime win. He was pulled after 40 minutes in a 6–1 Game 2 loss.

“In their building, you know it’s coming. It’s exciting as a goalie. Our guys played hard, were clearing rebounds and keeping them outside as much as they could. It’s kind of a blur, but was so good to sit and watch the end of the second game. I was thinking, ‘This one’s done and gone — let’s move on.”

Game 3 started hilariously.

“Would you believe they got a two-on-none off the opening face-off on a missed assignment? I make a nice backdoor save and thought, ‘We can build off this.’ Alberta outshot UBC 41-19, but lost 2–1.

“It was an onslaught. It was like Miracle — and we’re hanging on for deal life. Guys are laying out to block shots. The coolest game I’ve been a part of. Such disbelief — that team is expecting to be in the National Championship final game every year.”

Even though Saskatchewan beat UBC in the Canada West Final, the Thunderbirds had clinched a berth in the National Championships. The team traveled to Halifax, but the tournament was officially cancelled March 12 due to the outbreak.

“A lot of our parents came out and we had a dinner together. We didn’t want to believe it was over. One of the fifth-year players said he didn’t care if we [would’ve gotten] spanked by New Brunswick — he just wanted one more game with the boys. But everybody understood this is bigger than hockey for sure.”

Toth will be back for his fourth year, but he sure gave those departing seniors a gift.

30. When at WHL Seattle, Toth played with Ethan Bear and Mathew Barzal.

“I have nothing bad to say about Ethan — he’s one of the best people you’ll ever meet. He holds a hockey camp for First Nations kids every summer and there’s about eight of us who still go to work it, including Barzal and (Vegas prospect) Keegan Kolesar.”

And Barzal?

“He likes to give it to you,” Toth laughs. “He loves to rip you apart, but he also loves it when you give it back.”

The University of Ottawa Gee-Gees men’s hockey team. (Greg Mason)

31. Every school has a protocol, and the University of Ottawa is no different.

“We have a couple of banners in our rink for players or teams, and there are some terms you need to follow,” Gee-Gees coach Patrick Grandmaitre says. “But we owe a lot to this bunch of guys, and for sure we will do something.”

In February 2014, after two players were charged with sexual assault while on a road trip to Thunder Bay, the school shut down its hockey program for two years. When Grandmaitre was hired to revive it, he admitted, “Getting the job was a bit of a surprise. I thought, ‘I can’t mess it up.’”

Recruiting wasn’t easy.

“There were a lot of players not willing to come. You have to get guys who are being overlooked or are being told by other schools that they’re going to have to fight to play some minutes.”

He found 17 players who were willing to start the program, and that group reached the end of the road this month. There were, as with any team, ups and downs.

“In our first year, we went on a winning streak against some of the best teams in the conference and in Canada, (and) I remember the players looking at me like, ‘Coach, what is going on that we are beating these teams?’”

Last year was their best regular season in school history — 48 points in 28 games — the league’s best team in the regular season. But they lost to Queen’s in the second round of the playoffs.

“This was a real challenge for our coaching staff this year. The team was up and down, looked like they were saving themselves for the playoffs. The coaching staff was a bit frustrated, telling them you can’t just flip the switch. But we were also trying not be so crazy on every single detail and harping on them. It’s easy in our league to grind out guys, because you play so few games. It’s similar to football in that we play on the weekend, giving a whole week to prepare — all this time to ramp up the intensity.

“Our leadership group was telling us, ‘We got this — we’re OK.’”

Grandmaitre was worried they weren’t okay after a 5-3 loss to Ontario Tech that forced a deciding Game 3 in the first round.

“They are a really disciplined, smart team, and we did not play well in Game 2. I needed to find a solution. The biggest part of coaching is your players are looking at you for solutions, so you have to find them. Our strength is our cycle game in the o-zone, and they weren’t letting us get there. We couldn’t use the best of our game.”

The deciding game was the next day. Grandmaitre called two of his mentors: longtime junior hockey genius Danny Flynn and former QMJHL Shawinigan head coach Dan Renaud.

“No more D-to-D off the draw; push it; go, go, go,” Grandmaitre said. “From the first period, our guys were confident, and everything snowballed.”

The Gee-Gees won 5–0. There were special moments the rest of the way. The morning of the deciding second-round game at UQTR, the staff prepared special brown paper bag meals for the players with positive memories written on them.

“The players soaked it in, and I thought we had a good vibe, even though it didn’t start that way.”

Les Patriotes led 2-0 after one. Goalie Domenic Graham was battling the flu, walked in after 20 and told his teammates, “I’m not giving up one more, guys. They’re done.”

He was right. Ottawa won 4–2. Up next, for a berth in the University Cup, was Concordia. The Stingers have a huge home-ice advantage; the opposing team must walk by the stands. It’s close contact. There was a previous skirmish between Concordia and Carleton.

“We told our players this is the most intense playoff atmosphere. Relish it — we don’t get this often at university level. Want it.”

Grandmaitre says the fans taunted his team about the 2014 scandal. As the clock counted down a 7-2 win, “I really took the time to look at guys, who they’ve become, from a bit out of shape to relentless, hard-to-play against. Our assistant coach, Brent Sullivan, all the way from a volunteer to paid. The alumni who took it as a slap in the face when the program was shut down, all of those things.”

Their last game was a 2–1 triple-overtime loss to Guelph in the Queens Cup Final. Like UBC, they travelled to the National Championships.

“The fact that we got to go, practice three times — it’s a great event. It was worth it. It’s just hard telling 17-18 guys in a hotel conference room that it’s over. But this is unprecedented.”

It was hard for Grandmaitre to pick individual players to spotlight. But we chose five fourth-year players who stayed, competed and set the tone for a devastated program even though they lost ice time as others arrived: goalies Anthony Brodeur and Graham Hunt; defenceman Adam Beveridge; forwards John Deacon and Antoine Pouliot.

“They had reason to quit. They didn’t.”

32. The Rideau Canal photo above is an annual Gee-Gees tradition. They couldn’t use the Parliament Building as a backdrop this year so the chose the school’s new engineering building. Part of the tradition is buying a BeaverTail for each player post-photo — and one extra loaded with maple sugar and Nutella. The idea is that the captain gets smothered in it.

This year’s letter-wearer, Quinn O’Brien, was a worthy adversary. He told his teammates that he wouldn’t let anyone get behind him. One of his teammates’ partners recently gave birth to a girl, and they used her as a distraction to make sure O’Brien did not escape. Smart plan.

Stouffville Clippers Minor Midget AA.

33. This last story is from Connor Cadaret, who coaches the Stouffville Clippers Minor Midget AA. He submitted something, and I didn’t want to touch it. Here you go:

[blockquote]This past season was a dream I wish I never woke up from. There was never a moment when I was away from the rink that I was not looking forward to the next time I got to be with the team. Never a moment where I wasn’t thinking how I could make this team the best it could be and do my job to prepare them to the best of my ability.
I had poured my heart and soul into this team and it was the best feeling in the world to be able to take a step back and see the results of this effort. The messages were continuously apparent. The culture had been formed. Each player went into each game focusing on what they could control. Being hyper-focused on the specific things that they do well and help contribute to the team’s success.
Without getting into specifics, players played responsible hockey. Covering for teammates who were out of position. Holding each other accountable when selfish plays were made. When we hit adversity, they put even more effort into the team and trusted that, along with the coaches, we would be able to work our way out of it if we continued to play the game the right way.
More times than I can count, players put the team above themselves. They knew their roles. They suggested different strategies that would not directly benefit them, but would put the team in a better position to win. They did not complain when things weren’t going their way and when they may be seeing less playing time than others. They knew there was a reason, and if they were confused they asked why. They accepted what they needed to do better and worked as hard as they possibly could to execute their role to the best of their abilities.
This team that I had been so nervous to join back on that September evening in 2016 had become my second family. They had accepted me with open arms and had allowed me to provide them with life lessons along the way. They trusted me and my messages towards the game. They were brothers in arms. We were all in this together and we would do anything for each other.
To say I was proud of what we accomplished this post-season would be an understatement. This family came together more than ever. Never quitting. Playing for each other. Watching them battle night in and night out, and completely and unequivocally buying into the way I wanted them to play, was surreal to see. Watching them go on this magical post-season run, which led us to the OMHA Finals, gave me so much satisfaction as a coach.
We finished first in the regular season by 11 points. We won our first-round series against TNT. We won our second-round series against Newmarket. We won an incredibly tough third-round series against a hard-working Markham team that took us to the brink. We won our OMHA semi-final round against Kingston. We were heading into the OMHA Finals on a roll and ready to take on the No. 1 team in the province, the Oakville Rangers, when the season was suddenly over due to COVID-19.
No more practices to prepare for the Finals. No more meetings. No more motivational speeches. No more time together with our family. Being away from my team and family since the season has been cancelled has been very tough.
I realize that this is such a small, small part of this global pandemic, but it has made me realize some important things. I realized that the ultimate goal, and something that many people strive for, is being part of something bigger than yourself. Knowing that you have an entire team of people, an entire second family, that will do anything for you and will always be there for you no matter what.
This is what I was missing when I stepped away from the game for the first time. I was missing that camaraderie and that family. Putting effort into a common goal with people who want success just as bad as you do. You can only get to the top if you do it together. There are no shortcuts to success and this team, this family, was so close to the peak.
Winning a championship bonds you forever. It changes you as a person. It fills you with confidence that you can take into the rest of your life. The lesson that if you put all that you possibly can into something, and work with people together, through thick and thin, you will be rewarded. It’s the best feeling in the world.
I was lucky enough to win 2 OMHA Titles when I played hockey in Stouffville growing up, and as I told my team many times throughout the years, I am still very close with and keep in touch with everyone on those teams. I was so genuinely happy that my team that I had grown with over the past four years was ready to feel these championship feelings. They were going to know what I had been talking about over and over. The feeling of achieving the highest success with your brothers by your side.
We had a very tough battle ahead, but this team had “it.” They were going to pull through no matter what it took. I just knew it. There were definitely tears when I heard the news that the OMHA Finals were cancelled and that my players, my family, would not be able to experience that championship feeling and see their dreams turn into reality. My dream turned into a nightmare.
But immediately after the season was cancelled, my tears of sadness turned to tears of joy. As I saw the culture that I had wanted to build when I stepped into this role as coach come to fruition right before my eyes. That night, I saw players reaching out to one another over social media. I heard our players were coming together, and being there for each other to talk their way through this tough news. I had players reach out to me to see how I was handling this news. Players were saying that this was out of our control. All we can do is focus on what we can do to help and trust that things will get better if we do.
It made me feel as though I had done my job. I had done my small part to help develop these young men into seeing what is really important. They didn’t need to win a championship to become connected for the rest of their lives. They already were. As disappointed as I was to not be able to finish the season and finish my coaching career with this team in the way I always dreamed of by going out on top, I was lucky to have met all these kids and watch them grow into young men.
To every player that I have coached over my past four years in Stouffville, I thank you for listening to what I had to say (or at least pretending to). I thank you for reminding me what it means to be dedicated and passionate about something bigger than yourself. And most importantly, I thank you for helping me develop my passion for the game of hockey again and providing me with a second family that I loved deeply and will never forget. Championship or not, we will remain bonded forever and I look forward to seeing everyone sometime soon.[/blockquote]

34. The “31 Thoughts” blog will continue, but I’m skipping next week so I can finish another project I hope you enjoy. All the best, everyone. Thank you for reading.

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