Know this much: junior hockey provides plenty of drama.
As 2012 draws to a close, it is time to reflect on the controversial, the riveting, the breathtaking, the simply out-there and buzzy moments that make the junior game so fun to follow. There was probably too much going on this calendar year to distill it down to just five stories, but here is BTN's best effort at taking in the zeitgeist of the junior game from the past 12 months.
Season of scandals
Wow, that photo is Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon-worthy.
Three recruiting stories involving CHL powerhouses grabbed huge headlines. The first, foreshadowing what was to come, involved Winnipeg Jets first-round pick Jacob Trouba, who plays for the University of Michigan. The latter two ensnared the teams of his fellow Team USA defencemen Seth Jones and Patrick Sieloff. (Do I really have to explain that's not meant to link either to anything, just that it illustrates the links between each story?)
Accusations and suspicions about thick-walleted teams in major junior paying players under the table have circulated for years. In early July, the OHL's Kitchener Rangers filed a $1-million lawsuit against the Michigan Daily and a reporter after a story about what could be involved if Trouba decommitted to play in Kitchener. The suit never reached a courtroom, as the Daily deleted the article, but it was a harbinger of the hammers that were about to fall.
First OHL commissioner David Branch came down on the Windsor Spitfires, who won the Memorial Cup in 2009 and '10, levying a $250,000 fine and taking away four high draft picks (ultimately, that was the damage after an appeal). Windsor was dinged for "violations of the [OHL's] recruit policy.
That was nothing compared to what happened to the Portland Winterhawks, the star-studded squad (roommates Seth Jones and Ty Rattie are going head-to-head in the world junior championship) who could win the MasterCard Memorial Cup next May. In late November, WHL commish Ron Robison hammered Portland for 54 player-benefit violations, suspending coach-GM Mike Johnston for the rest of the season and barring the 'Hawks from the first five rounds of the league's next draft.
Portland was found to have concealed some of the contractual obligations it made to players and their parents. The subsequent PR offensive out of Oregon over Portland being cast as a renegade franchise and the league's poor crisis-management skills ended up generating public and online support for Winterhawks. The sanctions will catch up to the Winterhawks eventually, but their league-best 29-5-1-0 record has visions of Robison and the team engaging in one awkward presentation of the Ed Chynoweth Cup in a few months.
Coach Éric Veilleux masterfully managed a maelstrom in the Maurice to bring the first championship to Shawinigan, whose heart had been ripped in half a few times during the 43-year history of Cataractes franchise (not always under that name). You did not have to know any French beyond what is required to order in a Subway to know this was 10 glorious days of uniquely Québécois affirmation done to the scale of a town of 43,000 people.
A year ahead of time, The Cataractes were controversially named MasterCard Memorial Cup host over the super-stacked Saint John Sea Dogs. Everyone said told you so when they were eliminated in the second round of the playoffs, the first host team to exit that early in a decade. Armchair coaches wanted to use Veilleux's head as a paper weight. However, with a month to prepare, the 40-year-old bench boss and his staff got a group of Quebecers such as captain and Montreal Canadiens prospect Michaël Bournival, Maritimes such as defencemen Morgan Ellis and Brandon Gormley and Russians Kirill Kabanov and Anton Zlobin into peak form.
With fans at Centre Bionest shooting off airhorns and crowding the concourses, the Cats slowly emerged as a fighting force of extraordinary magnitude while the three league winners who were starting to fade after playing four playoff series. Shawinigan started 1-2, meaning it would have to be the second team after the 2009 Windsor Spitfires to win the tournament after playing a tiebreaker game. They sent Edmonton and Saint John home, then overcame the London Knights and OHL MVP Michael Houser to win the Memorial Cup 2-1 on Zlobin's OT goal.
Sarnia's Nail Yakupov, Alex Galchenyuk go top three in NHL draft
The magnitude of the Sarnia Sting teammates being taken Nos. 1 and 3 overall by Canadian NHL teams might become more apparent, say, after they play against the Maple Leaf in the world junior championship. Galchenyuk's knee injury did a Buzz Killington on holding season-long debate between dynamic duo's merits like the unfurling one between Halifax Mooseheads linemates (and Team Canada teammates) Jonathan Drouin and Nathan MacKinnon.
The long view that considers what each is doing this season suggests this was huge. Galchenyuk, a forward for Team USA who is back in junior due to the lockout, is crushing it and has led the Sting to first place in their division. Yakupov, of Team Russia, thrived in the KHL after decamping there due to the lockout. Two friends and complete, cannot-miss talents who can each beat defenders with speed, dish, distribute and drive to the net and laser a rounded six-ounce piece of rubber into the net faster than it took to learn to spell their names when they joined Sarnia in 2010.
CHLPA gets proposed, then gets exposed
Ex-NHLer Georges Laraque was executive director for the proposed CHLPA executive director (The Canadian Press)
Whatever the organization was, it is deader than Avril Lavigne's career. But in the spirit of the season, give credit where it is due for creating a big story. The notion of a players' association in major junior hockey grabbed a lot airtime and headlines from August through the autumn while the absence of the NHL extended the shelf life for silly-season stories among hockey writers with no games to cover.
The proposed Canadian Hockey League Players' Association, which seemed to make the term 'organized labour' an oxymoron, got so far as to get malleable major junior players to sign union cards and try to organize bargaining units in Alberta, Nova Scotia and Quebec. Former NHLer Georges Laraque, regularly spouting nonsensical buzzphrases, was the front man for a movement that claimed it could find a way to remove CHL players' ineligibility to play U.S. college hockey. (Everyone seemed to ignore there's a perfectly good combination of higher education and competitive hockey already operating in Canada.) It all came crashing down when serious questions were raised about the organizers, which led Laraque and the CHLPA's legal counsel to get out of Dodge.
The bottom line is that if there was any money in having a true advocacy group that looks out for junior players' welfare, someone with appropriate credentials would do it. There is not, so don't count on it happening.
Erie Otters centre Connor Crisp plays goal
A routine Sunday game between a contender and a cellar-dweller on March 4 became one of the most bizarre events in recent major junior history. When Erie's lone able-bodied goalie, Ramis Sadikov, was plowed into and knocked out of a game vs. the Niagara IceDogs, Crisp was summoned from the stands after missing every game to that point with a shoulder injury.
"I was just hanging out in the stands and I saw Rammer [Sadikov] got run and I got a call from [Otters assistant general manager] Dave Brown saying, 'Are you ready?' " Crisp told BTN during the Otters' ride home. "I was like, 'Seriously?' And he says, 'Oh no, I think he'll be fine." And the next thing I know he's being helped off the ice.
"I pretty much sprinted to the change room and started gearing down. [Then-Otters coach] Robbie [Ftorek] walked in and I asked, 'Am I going in?' He said, 'We need a goalie.' I've never been dressed up as a goalie before. I had no idea what I was doing. I had [teammate] Dane Fox strapping one pad on, our equipment manager doing up the other one, the goalie coach telling me what to do. It was a hectic 15 minutes of getting dressed. I've never been so nervous in my life.
"As soon as I got the nod from the coach, I was like, 'Jesus, this is becoming so real right now.' As soon as I stepped on the ice and could barely skate at first with the goalie skates on, I was thinking this could be a long day."
All involved had some fun with what was honestly a fiasco. Crisp allowed 13 goals on 45 shots, but being the first skater to go in goal in the OHL in 31 seasons earned him first-star honours. Coincidentally, he has exactly 13 goals so far this season during his comeback season with Erie, including a recent hat trick in the same rink. It was a hilarious chapter during a painful season for the Otters that paid off with being able to draft another Connor, a boy by the name of McDavid who personifies the hope of years to come.
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.
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