The Toronto suburb of Markham, Ont., isn't much different than other small towns across Canada. It has its own town hockey system, which grooms generation after generation of Canadian hockey youth.
Markham is remarkably successful in developing young players -- a fact the rest of the hockey world has seen while watching two of its most recent graduates come of age in the NHL.
Steven Stamkos, who played his youth hockey in Markham, was the first pick of the 2008 Entry Draft. In his short career, he's already won a Rocket Richard Trophy and currently leads the NHL with 20 goals and 35 points.
Not long after the Lightning picked Stamkos, the New York Rangers drafted another Markham graduate, defenseman Michael Del Zotto at No. 20. After playing one extra season in junior, he played 80 games with the Rangers last season, totaling 9 goals and 37 points. He led all Rangers defensemen and finished second among all rookie blueliners in goals, assists (28) and points. He has 2 goals and 6 points in 22 games this season, while playing 22:13 per game, a four-minute per game increase from last season.
As good as they have been in the NHL, where they'll battle Wednesday when the Rangers visit the Lightning, imagine the success they had playing together.
In 2005-06, Stamkos, Del Zotto and Cody Hodgson, the 10th pick of the 2008 Draft by the Canucks currently starring in the AHL, all played together for the Markham Waxers midget AAA team.
All three were 15 and were excelling while playing with kids two and three years older. Hodgson, who wanted to play with his older brother, Clayton, spent all season at the higher level and finished with 54 goals and 96 points in 58 games. Stamkos and Del Zotto played most of the season with the Waxers' midget-minor team, but made sporadic appearances with the midget AAA team. Stamkos had a remarkable 105 goals and 92 assists in 67 games for the midget-minor team, while Del Zotto had 90 assists and 120 points in 73 games with the midget-minor club.
"On that team we had great chemistry, there were no loose ends," said Del Zotto. "We knew where everyone was, especially on our power play. The puck movement was unbelievable."
The Waxers' midget AAA team took the silver medal at the Ontario provincial tournament, while the midget-minors were undefeated in league play, won the OHL Cup and finished second at the prestigious Silver Stick Tournament.
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"People would come out to watch our team play because of the skill levels of the players," said Paul Titanic, who coached the midget-minor Waxers. "The passing on the power play -- Steven and Michael and Cody on the ice for one power play, they all would bring their unique talents to the one power play. Michael had a great point shot, but if they took away the point shot, Steven would use his incredible one-timer off the side on an umbrella power play. If Steven was taken away, he would give it to Cody and he would take it to the net hard. You combine their unique skills and abilities ... the puck movement on the power play, that was amazing. Our team, and Steven in particular, would be the talk of the tournaments."
While Stamkos was light years ahead of players his own age, he was just as impressive playing with Hodgson at the midget AAA level.
"I had Stamkos up to play midgets a couple times," said Joe Cornacchia, coach of the midget AAA Waxers. "I think once when the two of them were on the ice, we beat the other team 11-1. Cody's work ethic and Stamkos' breakaway speed, just breaking for the open ice all the time, and Cody finding him when he was open and moving the puck to him, it was breathtaking to watch. They were really, really good hockey players."
That hasn't changed as they've matured.
"Steven especially would do things every practice that you would shake your head and go, 'Wow,'" Titanic said. "You'd look at the other coach and go, 'Wow.' He regularly knocks pucks out of midair, can shoot pucks off his knees; he can get tripped and go down on his knees and roof it."
Stamkos is the only Markham native of the three, so many of the league's coaches have seen him for more than a decade.
"He started here at novice, in the house league," Cornacchia said. "You've seen this kid grow and he's got so much potential. It's scary how these kids have developed, Stamkos especially, with his speed and ability to read the play and skate.
"The world is his oyster. He can excel to the heights that very few players can really achieve."
Del Zotto, who grew up about 12 miles northeast of Markham in Stouffville, is remembered for his strength and power.
"He's a tremendous passer," Titanic said. "The power of his game is really something. In a tournament final one year he took a slap shot from the point and it went so hard, it went over the goalie's head, hit the glass, hit him in the back and went in. And that was bantam, when he was 14, when he was standing still at the point."
Cornacchia had a similar memory of coaching Del Zotto.
"I'm the GM of the Waxers' Tier II team as well," he said. "We had Del Zotto up, he played one Tier II game as a minor midget, and he was outstanding, even as a minor midget playing against 20-year-olds. He laid out an 18-year-old and he was only 15."
The success of the Markham Three is a testament to the Markham program, which has been around since the 1930s.
"It's great for the Waxers," Cornacchia said. "Not just me, the whole organization. Our goal is to move kids up to the next level, regardless of what that level is -- Tier II, OHL, the NHL or scholastic. They'll be Markham Waxers forever."
This is a big year for us in a lot of ways. You can see Garth and management really trying to find that solution to get us into the playoffs and consistently have that. The pressure is great. You have to enjoy it. It just means there's a great opportunity ahead of you.