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Paving The Way

by John Tranchina / Dallas Stars
Virtually every kid good enough to play in the major junior hockey leagues in Canada shares the goal to someday play in the NHL. While the odds are fairly slim that players in the Canadian Hockey League, the umbrella group that is comprised of the Western Hockey League (WHL), Ontario Hockey League (OHL) and the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL), will eventually reach the world's top league, the fact that about half of all NHLers apprentice there demonstrates how well it prepares them for the pro lifestyle.

Stu Barnes

It's high-quality, high-profile hockey, with heavy media coverage in Canada and the few northern U.S. cities that also have franchises, and the schedule of 70-plus games a season mimics the professional grind. Of course, since most players are still teenagers (the age range is from 16-20), junior hockey also helps them adjust to life on their own and hockey as a full-time job.

"There's a heavy schedule and a lot of travel, so those are things that are more similar to the pro lifestyle," said Stars forward Stu Barnes, who skated for New Westminster and Tri-City in the WHL from 1987-90 and is now a part-owner of the Tri-City Americans. "It's a big adjustment for the kids. That is the lure of major junior, that it's more of a pro-style schedule and hopefully that adjustment will maybe fast-track you a little bit more. If you're playing that style at 18 or 19, the thinking is that you're more prepared to play pro."

With three separate leagues each having their own championships, one of the unique features about the junior hockey system in Canada is the Memorial Cup tournament every year that crowns an overall national champion. All of Canada tunes in to watch the three playoff champions battle it out with a fourth club hosting the tournament. The three leagues rotate that duty each year.

Last season, the QMJHL's Moncton Wildcats hosted it, automatically guaranteeing them a berth in it, and because they also won the league championship, the team they beat in the Finals, the Quebec Remparts, also participated in the tournament. As it turned out, Quebec, coached by former Colorado Avalanche goaltender Patrick Roy, ended up defeating Moncton in the Memorial Cup Final to win it all.

The process of going through their own league playoffs and then playing for the Memorial Cup, while the whole country watches, helps prepare players for the pressure and scrutiny, not to mention the long grind, of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

"It goes quick, a little round-robin and then, boom, there's your (championship) game," recounted defenseman Darryl Sydor, who played three-plus years for the WHL Kamloops Blazers, winning the Memorial Cup in 1992. "It's an exciting time. Obviously, at that juncture of your hockey career, that's the Stanley Cup for you. It teaches you how to win, what a team is about, the pressure, everything the NHL has, through the playoffs. It's just a different level."

"It was good for us," said Brenden Morrow of his experience at the 1998 Memorial Cup, which his WHL Portland Winter Hawks won." We were rated number one the whole year. To stay on top, with all the pressures that come with being the top-ranked team, and everybody stayed healthy all year, we won a lot of hockey games, and it was a lot of fun."

Morrow noted that when his club won the WHL championship, they were not content with their accomplishment.

Mark Fistric

"We wanted to be the best team in all three leagues," Morrow said, "so when we won the Western League, we weren't happy with that. We knew we still had another tournament and our job wasn't done. We felt we had the best team in the world at that time, and we wound up winning."

For Stars defenseman Jon Klemm, the extra exposure of playing for the Cup-winning Spokane Chiefs of the WHL in 1991 helped him secure a professional contract.

"The team that we had that year in Spokane my last year of junior helped me to get to where I'm at today," noted Klemm, who went on to sign a free agent deal with the Quebec Nordiques. "I think that if I'd have been on a team that didn't even make the playoffs, who knows? I might not have ever even signed a contract, since I was never drafted. I think that the success with my team winning that Memorial Cup was the first step to me getting the chance to play at this level."

Defenseman Philippe Boucher competed in the 1993 Memorial Cup tournament with the QMJHL champion Laval Titan, but his team lost the semi-final. For Boucher, getting the chance to experience a long playoff run was good consolation for being returned to junior mid-season after spending a couple of months in the NHL.

"It was actually a great experience," said Boucher, who was drafted by Buffalo in the first round of the 1991 draft and played 18 games with the Sabres earlier in 1992-93. "We had some solid players and we made a run in the playoffs. It was a good time. I think the fact that I went to a contender and a team that had a chance to win it all made it a lot easier."

The transition of going from a 19-year-old NHL rookie to a high-profile junior player expected to produce like an NHLer can be a challenge. For center Mike Ribeiro, who played 19 games with the Montreal Canadiens to start the 1999-2000 campaign, his trade from Rouyn-Noranda to the highly-rated Quebec Remparts helped ease the letdown of being back in the QMJHL. Readjusting to being treated like a teenager again, though, was a difficult process.

"I was going down from the NHL, so it wasn't easy to go from traveling on planes back to buses, and having curfews and stuff like that," Ribeiro admitted. "So the first couple of months was kind of hard, but I did what I had to do. I tried to improve myself when I went back. I think it probably helped me when I went back to junior, and I realized that, 'you know what, if you don't work hard enough, you might stay here and not get where you want.'"

Sydor went through the same experience, starting 1991-92 with Los Angeles after making the team out of training camp, and then being re-assigned to Kamloops halfway through the season. Like both Boucher and Ribeiro noted, joining a winning club made the transition easier to handle. And for Sydor, it turned out to have a happy ending, as the Blazers went on to win the Memorial Cup.

"I was happy in L.A., and then went back down there for the second half of the year, and we were able to win a championship," Sydor recalled. "I only played 18 games (for the Kings) my first year, but I was prepared for (returning to junior). As long as you take it the right way and build on your game, and learn, and find the emotion that you need to play at that age."

Marian Hossa and Brenden Morrow

With such a large percentage of NHLers learning their craft in Canadian junior hockey, it isn't surprising to look back and see how many current stars began there. For example, in Portland, Morrow played with Atlanta's Marian Hossa, who sixth among the NHL's leading scorers this past season, and winger Steve Ott lined up alongside Ottawa star Jason Spezza during his OHL days with Windsor. Ribeiro remembers facing a lot of high-profile players in the QMJHL.

"My year, the 1998 draft was a great one, and I played against a lot of them," Ribeiro said. "There was (Vincent) Lecavalier, (Simon) Gagne, (Francois) Beauchemin, there was a lot of great players. (Roberto) Luongo was just before me, there was (Ladislav) Nagy and (Brad) Richards. I was probably one of them, in that mix, but there was a lot of good players that came out that year."

Defenseman Stephane Robidas noted that the list of players he skated with for Shawinigan of the QMJHL during his four years there that progressed to the next level was a short one.

"I played with Patrick Lalime," Robidas said of the former Ottawa goaltender now with Chicago. "Besides that, we had Matthieu Descoteaux. He got drafted in the first round, and he played (five games) in the NHL. There are a lot of guys who were very good in junior, and didn't really make it. They're playing in Europe, they still make a living, but they didn't really make it to the NHL."

Sometimes it can be puzzling how some of the best players at the junior level can dominate and seem like such sure-fire, can't-miss prospects and then fail to make an impression in the NHL, while other supporting-role players in junior do take that step.

"You've got to be willing to change your game a little bit," Boucher said. "You've got a lot of guys with big numbers in the Quebec League that have never made it. Most of the top scorers I played with have never made it. And then you look at other guys. I played with Ian Laperriere (now with Colorado), for years against him in juniors and with him in the pros, and in junior, he was the leading scorer in the league. He played with an edge, but he was a skill guy, and now in the NHL, he's found his niche as a role player/tough guy, willing to block shots, fight for anybody and be a hard worker. He adjusted his game to make sure he could have a long career. Maybe some guys that you think would make it are not willing to make sacrifices like that."

Ott is a player who altered his game in much the same way, after piling up some impressive statistics during his three years in Windsor. With 50 goals and 87 points in just 55 games in 2000-01 and 88 points the following year, Ott was known more for his scoring exploits as a junior. But in the NHL, he's filled a role as a solid, energy-generating grinder who can hit, while managing 10 goals and 45 points in 194 career games.

"Everyone makes it differently," Ott said. "For myself, I still think that's something I want to work on in this league and become a contributor in the points department. At the time, there's an energy-type game that I played, it was always there as well, but when you separate yourself from junior to pro, to the AHL, to the NHL, there's steps you have to take."

While the schedule and lifestyle resembles the NHL, the quality of arenas in junior hockey have a wide range, from old, run-down barns seating 3,000-5,000 fans, to new state-of-the-art arenas that have been built in the past 10 years. Depending on your perspective, the old buildings could be a desirable place to play or rinks visiting players dreaded going into. Of course, the makeup of the home club also helped determine how unpleasant an arena was to play in.

Matthew Barnaby

"Laval, where Boucher played, was probably the most intimidating place, but also the most fun," said Stars winger Matthew Barnaby, a three-year alum of the QMJHL with Beauport and Victoriaville. "They always had really tough teams, and crazy fans who would throw beer on you when you were in the penalty box. They would try to fight you when you were in the box, so that was intimidating. And Sandy McCarthy was on their team, plus Gino Odjick, so they had a real tough team."

Ribeiro didn't like the conditions at Robidas' home rink.

"I think Shawinigan was maybe the worst one," Ribeiro recounted. "It was like a yellow light, really old-school. Rimouski, Halifax and Moncton were great places to play, much bigger rinks. Most of the rinks were like 4,000 (seats), and those were like 8,000-9,000, much closer to the NHL."

Robidas, who played four years in Shawinigan, agreed his home arena wasn't the greatest, but that gave them an advantage. In fact, when Shawinigan hosted the Memorial Cup in 1985, they ended up moving the tournament to a different city after two games because the large support pillars throughout the arena made television viewing nearly impossible.

"We played in a very old building," Robidas said. "The road team didn't like to come to Shawinigan because it was old and the dressing rooms weren't very nice. Our dressing room was nice because they re-did it, so it was pretty neat with a great atmosphere."

Ott had a similar experience in Windsor.

"I think my home rink was probably one of the worst Ontario Hockey League rinks," Ott said. "Windsor Arena is an 80-year-old arena, basically a dump, with squirrels falling on the ice and jumping off the rafters -- some of the weirdest things you've ever seen. I remember leaving my power bars underneath my seat once, and the rats got into them and ate them all. Also, It's a small rink, a lot smaller than an NHL surface, it makes for a little bit more of a physical game."

In the WHL, Morrow really enjoyed his home rink in Portland, the Rose Garden, which is also used by the NBA's Portland Trail Blazers.

"My favorite was to play home games in Portland," Morrow said. "I think we averaged almost 9,000 people, which is pretty unbelievable for a junior team, so that was a lot of fun. On New Year's Eve, we had like 19,000 fans. Probably the worst would be Saskatoon. There were probably 300-400 people in the stands, so it wasn't real fun for us to play there."

Regardless of the arena conditions, all the players look back fondly on their junior hockey days and the deep bonds they forged with teammates. Many have friends for life from those experiences and wouldn't trade it for anything.

Stephane Robidas

"We had great friends on the team, we all went to high school together, we all did everything together," said center Mike Modano, who skated for WHL Prince Albert from 1986-89. "I ended up staying there for all three of my summers and it was just a lot of fun. It was a great little town in Canada that just lived and breathed hockey."

"I always played on really close teams in junior," Klemm added. "We were a bunch of kids doing something that we loved to do, trying to get to the same next level. Obviously, when you go to a junior club, chances are, you're not going to make it to this level. You watch guys grow. I have a lot of great memories."

And in addition to the fun times, the junior lifestyle is a good barometer for how things will be in professional hockey, and It's an important part of learning to get there.

"I think the travel and the amount of games we play -- 75 a year -- the way the game's played, being responsible and taking care of yourself, it definitely gets you ready for the pro game," said Barnaby.

And that's ultimately what they're all there for, anyway.

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