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Markham trio prepares for next step in their careers

by Adam Kimelman

Markham, Ontario has groomed generations of Canadian hockey youth including this year's consensus No. 1 pick Steven Stamkos, of the Sarnia Sting.
The Toronto suburb of Markham, Ontario, 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 should see firsthand June 20 in Ottawa, when three of its town league graduates are expected to have their names called within the first 15 or so choices in the 2008 Entry Draft.
Steven Stamkos, who played his youth hockey in Markham, is the consensus No. 1 pick in the Draft and is expected to be chosen No. 1 overall by the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Sarnia Sting star forward had 58 goals and 105 points this past season.
Along with Stamkos, forward Cody Hodgson, ranked No. 9 in the final Central Scouting ranking, and defenseman Michael Del Zotto, ranked No. 15, should be picked in the first round. Hodgson had 40 goals and 85 points in 68 games for the Brampton Battalion, while Del Zotto, of the Oshawa Generals, was third among Ontario Hockey League defensemen with 63 points in 64 games.
As good as they were with their respective OHL teams, imagine the success they had playing together.
In 2005-06, Stamkos, Hodgson and Del Zotto 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.
Impressive, no?
"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 -- as shown by their OHL stats and high draft rankings.
"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."
Along with Stamkos, Brampton Battalion center Cody Hodgson ranked No. 9 in the final Central Scouting ranking.
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."
Hodgson impressed Cornacchia with his off-ice maturity as well as his steady play. 
"During a hockey season you go through various stages," Cornacchia recalled. "Sometimes you have to discipline kids. This kid came up to me, and he said if you have to make an example out of anybody, you can make it out of me.
"You ask him to play defense, he plays defense; if you ask him to kill penalties, he kills penalties. Whatever you ask him to do, he does. He's a humble kid who only wants to get better.
"He's an outstanding individual. He's a hard-working kid that strives to get better all the time. He just works and works and works, and it's through hard work and determination and commitment that he's at the level he's at now. He brings everything to the game. He's the most focused kid I've had.
"People have really underestimated this kid. This kid is the real thing. He's the consummate team player. As a coach you cannot ask for a better hockey player as an individual as him. … He's the real deal, the real package."
Titanic had similar praise.
"He's a warrior that never gives up," Titanic said. "The picture that comes to mind with him is his tenacity and his all-around game. He battles for every puck and every inch of the ice. That's what makes him most unique. I think that game in the Silver Stick tournament was a game we'll all never forget. Cody, we moved him around to a couple different spots on the power play to give a different look -- moved him to the point and he scored from the point, moved him down low and he scored down low. He can play anywhere."
The success of the Markham 3 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. I've never seen that happen. I doubt if I ever will again."
On June 20, the Waxers family will be watching as three of their own take the next step in their hockey journeys.
"I'm looking forward to it very much," Titanic said. "All of us grew to be so close over the years. Those guys are almost like my own sons."
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