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IN DEPTH: Saskatchewan Success Story

by Marc Ciampa / Edmonton Oilers

It all began like any other childhood on the Canadian prairies.

Long nights at the outdoor rink or in a local community arena playing hockey with friends, simply for the love of the game.

But even at a young age, Jordan Eberle was an exceptional talent. He would regularly play one or two age groups above his own and succeeded greatly despite his small stature.

It was around age 10 when he finally started to play with his own age group for the first time and Eberle clearly separated himself from his peers, scoring an astounding 216 goals in 60 games for the Regina Tier 1 Kings.

216 goals. Was that for real?

Jordan Eberle with the Calgary Midget AAA Buffaloes (left) and winning The Brick Tournament on the Vancouver Vipers (right)

“As far as the stats, I’m sure they’re roughly around there,” Eberle remarked when asked. “I didn’t really keep track of that but I’m sure the league did. “That was a season where I was playing against kids my own age whereas the years before I always played against guys who were older. I had a really good year. You’re 10 years old so you don’t really think about that, you’re just having fun.”

Eberle started out as a hockey prodigy of sorts but he continued to get better. And better. And people were starting to take notice.

When you’re 10 years old, the top tournament in the world that you can play in is right here in Edmonton: the Brick Tournament at West Edmonton Mall. Eberle not only played in that tournament, he won the whole thing – and scored the game-winning goal in overtime (against a team with Steven Stamkos on it).

But the team he played on? The Vancouver Vipers.

“We had two travelling teams in Saskatchewan in the summer. One of the teams was out of Regina, named Wheatland and the other was the Saskatoon Huskies. I played for Wheatland but we weren’t actually going to the Brick Tournament,” Eberle said. “We didn’t have a talented enough team, I don’t think. We’d gone to a tournament and the Vipers saw me play. They were trying to add onto the team. They asked me to play because I wanted to be in it and it just kind of worked out.”

At the age of 14, Eberle’s family moved from Regina to Calgary but he stayed in his home province to play for the famed Notre Dame Hounds in Wilcox, Saskatchewan.

“I moved to Calgary when I was 14. I actually went back to Notre Dame and played as a 14-year-old my last year of Bantam then came back and played in Calgary. The only year I played was for the Calgary Midget AAA Buffaloes. Then I went back to Saskatchewan when I was 16.”

Although he only had one year with the Buffaloes, he played some big tournaments for that squad as a 15-year-old.

Eberle won a Bronze Medal at the Mac’s Midget Tournament in Calgary and took Silver at the TELUS Cup for the Canadian Midget Hockey Championship with an overtime defeat to the Prince Albert Mintos.

GOING THE WHL ROUTE

It was Jordan's dream growing up to one day suit up for his hometown Regina Pats in the Western Hockey League but even though he was selected by the Pats in the WHL Bantam Draft (round seven, 126th overall), he didn’t think it was a realistic option.

“It’s a funny story. I was a late-round pick in the WHL. It wasn’t until the seventh round. I didn’t think they had much interest in me playing there as a 16-year old,” Eberle recollected. “I actually went to the Okotoks Oilers camp (Alberta Junior Hockey League) prior to the Pats camp and made the Junior A team there. I had all the intentions of going to play college hockey somewhere; taking the Junior A route.”

However, once Eberle got to Regina and the Pats saw what they had in the 16-year-old prospect, they did everything they could to persuade him to stay.

“I went to camp (in Regina) just for fun because it’s my hometown and they drafted me. I thought I’d give them an opportunity to see what I had. I had a really good camp and they wanted me to stay.”

Even though Eberle had always imagined himself playing for the Pats some day, it was still a tough decision. 

“I was torn between the decision of going to the Western Hockey League or playing NCAA but at the end of the day I chose to take the WHL route. I grew up watching the Pats, dreamed of playing there and thought why not give it a shot? So I took that route.”

It proved to be a great decision for both Eberle and the Pats. Jordan led the team in goals with 28 – a rarity at the major junior level for players at age 16.

“Much like any rookie season, you start gaining confidence as you start doing better and better. It was much the same with that team. I started on the third or second line then started moving up and getting more and more ice time. I played well and the more you play, the more confidence I got. It just kind of grew from there.”

Eberle followed up that 28-goal season with 42 and then netted 35 in only 61 games before scoring 50 goals in 57 games in his final junior season.

“I got more confident. I think the more you play and the more you score, you start to realize that you can be one of the better players and it just keeps growing and growing.”

His time in Regina was one which Eberle identified as the moment in time where he began to consider a career in the National Hockey League as a real possibility.

“It doesn’t really hit you until you’re drafted and start playing in the Western Hockey League, that you really want to do this for your career. Prior to that, you’re enjoying the game, you love playing hockey. Obviously you talk about wanting to play in the NHL – it’s your dream – but you don’t start thinking it could come true until you’re really in the spotlight in junior and start to get drafted into the NHL.”

BECOMING A LEADER

During his time in Regina, Eberle not only developed as a hockey player he also developed as a leader both on the ice and off the ice.

Current Oilers teammate Brandon Davidson played one season with Eberle on the Pats in 2009-10 and was asked to think back to his first encounter with him during training camp in Regina.

“I think everybody had heard of Jordan Eberle in the hockey world. He was the next upcoming superstar and it was great to get there, first of all, and be a part of that with him,” Davidson began. “I think his reputation preceded him well. He was a hell of a player and a great veteran off the ice too. He made things easy for me coming into Regina. It was nice having him around.”

Davidson eventually became captain of the Pats and took a lot of what he learned from playing with Eberle into that role.

“He just brought that ‘pro’ aspect to the game. Even when we were in junior, things were run differently from junior to pro but I think he already had that mindset. It was every day, consistency from him. Just the way he held himself and the manner about him was extraordinary. I learned a lot from him off the ice and I think that honestly corresponded on the ice as well.”

Jordan Weal, currently playing with the Los Angeles Kings, played two full seasons with Eberle and recollected his time with the Oilers winger.

“I knew him from my first camp when I was 15. He was the best player out there by far and you could tell he was a really good player,” Weal noted. “I got to know him really well the two years I was there. I played with him a lot and learned a lot from him. He taught us young guys how to work and take care of our bodies and prepare for every game. He was really consistent and brought it every night and that’s just a couple things you could take from him.”

Weal really benefitted on the ice with Eberle as well, skating with him as a linemate off and on during the two campaigns. 

“We had an injury right off the bat there (in my rookie season) and I jumped right in to the top line in the first couple of games. We had some really good games, which helped me a lot confidence-wise. When you have some early success you can build off that and gain confidence off that,” he said.

In his second season, Weal finished with 35 goals and 102 points. Only Calgary’s Brandon Kozun had more points than Weal and Eberle in the entire WHL that season. Eberle had 50 goals and 107 points.

“We had a lot of fun that year. We didn’t win as much as we would have liked to but we had a lot of fun scoring goals and making plays. It was a very creative year. He had an unbelievable year at World Juniors and in the season and it’s continued into the pros,” said Weal, adding that he learned a lot from Eberle those two seasons that he carries with him even today in the NHL.

“He’s a very consistent player. I think that’s a huge thing when you get into the pros, is bringing it every night. That’s the one thing I got from him. Off the ice, no matter who he was talking to – older guy or younger guy – he treated everyone the same. That really helped us younger guys feel more comfortable.”

INTERNATIONAL SUCCESS

It has been talked about many times over the years.

Down 5-4 with only a few seconds left to play, Jordan Eberle found a loose puck and backhanded it in to tie the Semi-Final game against Russia at the 2009 World Junior Hockey Championships in Ottawa.

“I don’t really remember it. It was an opportunity. A guy threw the puck on net. One of the Russian defencemen misplayed it and I happened to be around and just put it in. It was at the end of the game; a lot of stuff is happening. We were just throwing pucks on the net, hoping for a bounce and we ended up getting it and won the tournament.”

Eberle scored again in the shootout to get Canada past the Russians and then the Canadians went on to defeat Sweden 5-1 in the Gold Medal Game.

However, that wasn’t Eberle’s first foray into international waters. After playing for Team Alberta in the 2007 Canada Games (winning a Bronze Medal and scoring two goals and an assist over BC in that game), he took part in the 2007 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament in the Czech Republic.

“The experience was great. Obviously, you get a chance to play with Canada and it’s an honour. As far as the tournament goes, it didn’t go so great. We actually lost, we didn’t even medal, which is a disappointment because they usually win every year,” Eberle said of finishing in fourth place in his international debut.

“Our team dynamic, we just didn’t do too well. We actually lost one game to the Swedes and we were out of it right away. But as far as wearing the maple leaf and getting a chance to represent Canada, that’s always special.”

In his next opportunity to wear the maple leaf, Eberle did much better. Playing on a line with Taylor Hall and Cody Hodgson, he finished second in tournament scoring with 10 points in seven games as Canada convincingly won a Gold Medal.

“That experience was great, one of my fonder ones for sure,” he said. “That was the first time I actually played with Taylor. We played on a line together. We weren’t really the big heavyweight in the tournament, we were more the underdogs just because it’s a tournament where a lot of the good players for Canada are still playing hockey in the playoffs.”

Despite that, Eberle and the Canadians walked all over the host Russians in the final.

“We had a great team still but weren’t considered one of the favourites. We ended up losing to the Russians in the Round Robin and played them in the final and spanked them 8-0. That was in Russia, it was a great feeling.”

Eberle scored two goals and had an assist in the deciding game. Current Oilers teammate Taylor Hall, who had a goal in that game as well, looked back on the experience.

“That was amazing experience. Great crowds throughout the tournament and for that final game, it was a pretty raucous atmosphere,” said Hall. “We came out and played an amazing game. I think Ebs had a few points that game.

“It was just a fun tournament overall. We had a real good group of guys and had to go over to a country we didn’t know too much about. But we came together quick and it was nice to meet Ebs there.”

Hall and Eberle played on the same team once again at the 2010 World Juniors in Saskatchewan.

“Throughout that tournament, he was amazing,” said Hall. “He was our leader on and off the ice. He was a guy we all looked up to. I was the youngest guy on the team, so he was someone I really respected a lot.”

Eberle scored twice in the game's final three minutes to force overtime against the Americans in the 2010 IIHF World Junior Hockey Championships Gold Medal Game (photo by Getty Images)

Canada won the Silver Medal at that tournament, but it wasn’t for a lack of trying on Eberle’s part. He won Most Valuable Player at that tournament, most notably scoring twice in the final three minutes of the Gold Medal Game to rally the Canadians from down 5-3.

“We came close. It was an overtime goal that cost us but we did everything we could in that final game,” said Hall.

Having the tournament in his home province, Eberle to this day has nothing but fond memories despite the OT loss.

“Obviously we didn’t get the result we wanted but that was – as far as the crowd and the way that the city treated us – it was amazing,” said Eberle. “That was special, especially after the first World Juniors, we had an opportunity to do it again in Saskatchewan and I had a lot of family and friends there.”

By the end of the tournament, Eberle was Canada’s all-time leading scorer in World Juniors history with 14 goals but his time donning the maple leaf was far from over.

Only a few months after his performance at the World Juniors in Saskatchewan, Eberle was invited to the Men’s World Championships. The invite was a surprise as he had yet to suit up for a single NHL game to that point.

“That was nerve-wracking,” he began. “When I was 19, coming out of junior. I knew some of the players – we had a young team – a lot of the guys I knew from World Juniors but they’d already played in the NHL.”

Eberle did not look out of place at all in his four games in the tournament. Particularly in his debut, scoring a goal and adding three helpers to lift Canada to a 12-1 win over Norway.

“There was a lot of players that were standout NHL players – Ryan Smyth was on the team and ended up getting injured and that’s why I got an opportunity to play. That really helped me jump into the NHL. Just being around the guys, practicing and getting into three or four games.”

Eberle has been to the World Championships several times since then, but hadn’t won Gold until this past spring.

“That was one of the highlights of my career to this point. I’d been there so many times and obviously hadn’t gotten the result that I wanted but this year we finally did it.”

Playing on a line with Sidney Crosby and Taylor Hall, Eberle was second in tournament scoring with five goals, eight assists and 13 points. The head coach of the team was current Oilers bench boss Todd McLellan, with current Oilers assistant coach Jay Woodcroft as an assistant.

“It made the transition a lot easier at camp. You know how he coaches and how he speaks and how he wants his team to play. It gives you that head start and that jump. Hallsy and I definitely had that. Obviously I got sidelined a bit with the injury, which really sucked, but I’m starting to get some confidence back.”

ON TO THE NHL
Much like he was drafted by his favourite junior team, the Regina Pats, Eberle’s favourite NHL team also stepped up to the podium to select him when it came time in 2008. Only this time, he went in the first round – 22nd overall.

“Living in Saskatchewan, we get to pick whoever we want (to cheer for). The Oilers were always a team that a lot of people in Saskatchewan like. I don’t know what it is about them. Obviously back in the 80s they were very successful and a lot of people jumped on the bandwagon,” he said, adding that it was the team as a whole and no particular player which drew him into Oilers fandom.

“I didn’t have any particular player that I watched. I was always a Joe Sakic fan and I really liked Pavel Bure a lot but no real Oilers players stuck out. I just enjoyed watching the team and obviously the way the city reacted to them.”

After being chosen by Edmonton in 2008, Eberle played two more seasons in the WHL before finally making his NHL debut in 2010. Often the step up to the NHL can be a difficult one so he was happy to experience the journey with a familiar face in Taylor Hall.

“When you’ve got young guys who you can share the experience with – obviously Taylor and I were going through it together – we (also) had some great veterans to help us on our way,” Eberle said. “When you’ve got someone to go through it with, sharing thoughts and questions, it makes it a lot easier.”
 
Hall remembers how welcoming Eberle was, very shortly after he was chosen with the first overall selection in 2010.

“He was one of the first guys to reach out and text after Edmonton won the lottery. Definitely after I was drafted, he was at the draft party at Rexall supporting me,” stated Hall, adding that the two got reacquainted very shortly after that starting with the team’s Orientation Camp in Alberta.

“When we got to Edmonton for Development Camp, we hooked up right away and knew we’d have a good friendship,” he continued. “It made it a lot easier, the transition.”

Hall emphasized how much the friendship between the two has meant for both of them over the years.

“It’s a different life in the NHL; a lot of things come at you. Having him there as a friend on and off the ice really helped and eased it a lot.”
THE FUTURE

This season did not get off to a fortunate start for Eberle after he injured his shoulder during a pre-season game against the Arizona Coyotes. For the first time in his career, he started a season on the shelf and did not get into the lineup until the team’s 14th game of the year.

“I knew it was going to be tough. I didn’t think it was going to be that tough,” Eberle chuckled. “Coming in against Pittsburgh, they’re a fast team. Ideally that was not where I wanted to start. I remember that first period, my neck was sore my head was on a swivel so much. The puck was moving so quick.”

Eberle scored a power play goal early in the third period to get Edmonton on the board against the 'Hawks earlier this week.

“I thought I settled into that game (against Pittsburgh) a little better and then in Chicago I started to really feel good and get confident with the puck. Obviously, putting the puck in the net helps to get some confidence. I still have room to grow but I like where it’s going.”

Coach McLellan also talked about the speed of the game in reference to Eberle.

“I think it’s a combination of everything. The game is going fast right now. When you haven’t been able to start at the starting line with everybody else, that affects you a lot. Ebs has poise, he has maturity, he’s experienced but nothing makes up for that pace.

“We talk a lot about his skillset. It’s cerebral, it’s quick hands, it’s making tight little plays. When the game is going fast that’s a hard thing to do when you’re not used to it.”

As for the team moving forward, Eberle is very excited for the direction the franchise is going.

“There’s obviously a bright future. We have a lot of good players on this team. We’ve just got to find a way to realize that and understand that we can compete with every team.”

The team is still experiencing plenty of ups and downs but having been in all 17 games played so far, it appears that the light is shining bright at the end of the tunnel.

“Lately we haven’t started well but as soon as we get behind the eight ball we start playing well and outplaying teams. If we can find a way to understand that we are a good team and get the confidence that we can beat any team in the league, we’re going to be the team to beat.”

“There’s a lot of good things happening.”

By Marc Ciampa/edmontonoilers.com

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