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OHL draft snub Cirelli emerges as Memorial Cup hero

by Adam Kimelman

Oshawa Generals forward Anthony Cirelli couldn't believe where he was or what he had done.

There he was, inches in front of Kelowna Rockets goaltender Jackson Whistle in overtime of the championship game of the Memorial Cup. Then a loose puck popped onto his stick with an empty net to shoot it into.

"It was kind of a blur," Cirelli said. "I remember it going in. Then we were hoisting the cup."

Cirelli scored both goals in a 2-1 win that clinched Oshawa its first Memorial Cup title since 1990.

Oshawa's lineup for the championship game featured seven players who had been drafted by NHL teams, two in the first round, and another who could go late in the first round of the 2015 NHL Draft.

But it was Cirelli, passed over twice in the Ontario Hockey League draft, who made it to the Generals after surviving two training camps, that had the biggest moment of the season.

"I really never thought this could happen a year ago," he said.

A native of Woodbridge, Ontario, Cirelli had 16 points in 33 games with the Mississauga Reps minor midget team in 2012-13, so he wasn't surprised when he passed through the 2013 OHL draft.

His second season with the Reps was better, with 10 goals and 28 points in 31 games, but his name never was called at the 2014 OHL draft.

Cirelli had planned to play for the Mississauga Chargers in the Ontario Junior Hockey League this season and see where that took him. But then an unexpected invitation landed in his lap.

The Chargers' coach, Joe Washkurak, also is a scout for Oshawa, and he got Cirelli an invitation to their rookie camp.

Cirelli said he went to the camp in April 2014 with little expectations.

"I was going there really for the experience, to see what it would be like," he said.

He did well enough to earn an invitation to the Generals' main training camp in August. With an opportunity to play top-level junior hockey, Cirelli ramped up his offseason workouts.

"Last summer was the first summer I took it seriously," he said. "Working out every day, getting faster, stronger. … Coming to main camp I knew I had to do anything in my power to make the team."

Oshawa had gone to the OHL conference finals in 2013-14 and returned a majority of their top players for this season, among them Michael Dal Colle (New York Islanders), Cole Cassels (Vancouver Canucks) and Hunter Smith (Calgary Flames).

Cirelli knew his chances were slim, and he surprised even himself by earning a spot on the Generals.

"I couldn't believe it at first," Cirelli said. "I was kind of dizzy. I was actually at the mall parking lot when Roger [Hunt, Oshawa general manager] called me. I was in complete shock."

Cirelli started the season on the fourth line but improved as the season went on, and began earning time as a top-six forward and contributed on special teams. He finished the regular-season with 13 goals, 36 points and a plus-34 rating in 68 games and jumped from No. 88 on NHL Central Scouting's midterm ranking of North American skaters for the 2015 draft in January to No. 67 in its final rankings.

"Anthony has an excellent work ethic," Central Scouting's Chris Edwards said. "He competed hard in every role that he was given this season. Some nights he would start the game on the third line in an energy role, and then be moved up to the top line later in the game and be very effective in both roles. He has been effective on both the power-play and penalty-killing units."

Cirelli had two goals and 10 points in 21 OHL playoff games, and in his first three games at the Memorial Cup he had one assist, helping set up Tobias Lindberg's game-winning goal in the second period of Oshawa's 2-1 defeat of Kelowna during round-robin play.

In the championship game Kelowna led 1-0 midway through the second period when Dakota Mermis found Cirelli with a long stretch pass that set up a 2-on-1 break. Cirelli looked off teammate Bradley Latour and beat Whistle with a snap shot to tie the game.

Then came Cirelli's play early in overtime. Lindberg carried the puck into the Kelowna zone and dropped it for defenseman Chris Carlisle. Whistle stopped Carlisle's hard shot from the right circle, but Cirelli was in the right place at the right time. With his skates anchored just outside the crease, Cirelli boxed Whistle out of getting back into position to stop him on the rebound.

"I had the screen there," Cirelli said. "And then it just laid there for me."

Cirelli remembers pieces of the celebration, including being jumped on by Lindberg, Carlisle and Matt Mistele. Then he was skating with the Memorial Cup, just like he had seen so many others do on TV.

"I remember watching when I was younger," he said. "I dreamed of it, watching the people playing in the Memorial Cup."

He wasn't picked in the OHL draft, but it's likely he'll hear his name called at some point during the 2015 NHL Draft, which will be held June 26-27 at BB&T Center in Sunrise, Fla.

"Once I saw my name in the midterm rankings I thought, 'Oh wow, I'm getting noticed here,'" Cirelli said. "I was a little nervous at first but I knew that if I wanted to get anywhere I had to keep working extra hard because the guys [in the NHL] are even bigger, even faster. I got motivated for sure because I came from nothing and halfway through the season I see my name there. I got motivated to do more."


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