Red Wings assistant general manager Ryan Martin was in Blainville-Boisbriand, Quebec, during the 2011-12 season when he first saw Val-d'Or winger Anthony Mantha play.
Ironically, Martin, who doesn't normally scout or watch his team's drafted prospects, wasn't even there to see Mantha. Instead he was checking in on the progress of one of his team's top prospects Xavier Ouellet, a defenseman the Red Wings had selected in the second round of the 2011 draft. But Mantha, who was just 17 at the time, stood out like a man among boys that day and caught the eye of Martin.
"The first time I saw him play I was in Blainville-Boisbriand to watch Xavier Ouellet play," Martin said. "I don't see all of these prospects play as much as the regular amateur scouts do and getting to watch our unsigned prospects. So I was in town watching Xavier play and Val-d'Or was in town to play Blainville.
"(Mantha) was an underage then and I remember thinking he's obviously a big 6-4 athletic kid who skates really well and has good puck skills. Val-d'Or didn't have a great team then and Blainville had a very strong team. But he found a way to create opportunities by himself and make his teammates better. He had a really good game the first time I saw him and obviously he's a guy that ended up scoring 50 goals the next year, his draft year, but he was always somebody who showed great offensive skill."
That 50-goal and 89-point season in 2012-13 obviously caught the eye of many NHL scouts and raised the stock of the then 190-pound wing from Longueuil, Quebec. But the Red Wings scouting team was locked in on Mantha so much that, according to Mantha, in a pre-draft interview with Red Wings GM Ken Holland, he was told Detroit would take him in the 2013 draft if he was still available.
The Wings did just that, and while Mantha admittedly has room for improvement and knows he isn't quite ready to make the jump to the NHL, he has Holland, Martin and the Red Wings scouting team happy with their decision so far as he is tearing up the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League with 24 goals and 54 points through 23 games this season with Val-d'Or.
"I remember before the draft, Ken (Holland) told me, 'We'll get you,' and they did," Mantha said recently. "I thought before Detroit drafted maybe another team may get me, but when it was Detroit I was happy because that meant a lot to me for them to have that confidence. It makes me want to make them proud they chose me even more. They showed they believe in me and I'm trying my hardest now to improve and do what I need to do to make the next level."
Mantha got a good taste of what he must improve upon at the Red Wings' 2013 development and training camps. As many new draftees find out, pro hockey is a whole new world regardless of how skilled or big you may be. While he has grown even more since being drafted and is now listed at 6-5, 205, Mantha admittedly got a good dose of reality at both camps after his breakout performance in the "Q" last season.
"Camp really showed me that I'm not ready yet," Mantha said. "That was a different level of hockey, obviously, and it takes a lot to be a pro. I learned so much, though. I know that I need to be better one-on-one, to keep working hard on the little things on and off the ice to really be ready for that next level. I'm doing that now. I've gotten help from my teammates on the ice like my linemate Louick Marcotte and of course my coach Mario Durocher. Coach has really helped me focus on the little things and just playing a more complete game."
That's exactly what the Red Wings preached to Mantha following camp. According to Martin, the Red Wings' prestigious Traverse City rookie tournament served as a real eye-opener to Mantha as it has to so many other young NHL prospects, and in his eyes Mantha not only gained some valuable lessons from the experience but was already applying those lessons before he headed home to Val-d'Or.
"Every year there's always a handful of players there that make the jump right from there to the NHL, like a Jeff Skinner for instance," Martin said. "So when kids come into that tournament right after they're drafted, it's very hard for them to make an impact and standout. I'd say there's probably two exceptions to that rule this past year with (Valeri) Nichushkin in Dallas and [Rasmus] Ristolainen in Buffalo were two kids that looked like they were at the head of the class.
"In Anthony's case I would say that by the end of the tournament -- and it's a four-game tournament -- so I would say by end of game three and the end of game four, he had a big game four and scored a couple goals, he was starting to find his way. So when we bring him in at the end of that tournament, it's a really eye-opening experience for the young man, to go from the Quebec Major Junior League right into that. So we just gave him our advice at the end of that tournament. We said, 'You've scored 50 goals and in order to play in the NHL you need to be a 200-foot player, so that's what you'll have to go back and work on and do all the little things.'"
Mantha currently sits atop the league leaders in goals, assists and points in the QMJHL. He's garnering attention across the hockey world, but while the hype builds around this top prospect, he remains grounded.
"I don't really pay attention to the weekly awards I'm getting or the attention because that's not what's most important to me," Mantha said. "What's most important, like I said, is that I keep doing what Detroit needs me to do. I keep working on being an everyday player and working hard every game and every day off the ice so I can make it to the next level."
For Martin and the Red Wings, those words must come across like the sweet sounds of Motown.