A quarter century ago, I drove to Niagara Falls to watch some kid named Joe Thornton play for the St. Thomas Stars Jr. B team. As a 15-year-old playing against older competition, some of the players as many as five years his senior, Thornton was in the midst of a 100-point season. He was big and strong and prodigious even then. He didn’t look the least bit awkward in his rapidly growing body, and his vision to find sticks and open ice was almost as breathtaking then as it was in his prime. Off the ice and in the dressing room, he was a gregarious carbon copy of what he is now, minus the enormous beard.
And almost nobody had ever heard of him. If Thornton had been a 15-year-old in 2019, he’d probably be playing in the OHL as an exceptional player, and he’d definitely be appearing on our list of the top 100 players aged 21 and under. He would have been aggressively recruited by the top teams in the Greater Toronto League. He would have been part of some spring hockey juggernaut, and there would have been agents tacitly, or even directly, letting his parents know that it would be a very good idea for him to have competent representation.
In our attempts to find The Next Great Thing, we in the hockey world all walk a fine line when it comes to identifying prodigies, and it’s one that is getting more blurred all the time. We at The Hockey News are not immune. About this time last year, we did a Superstar Issue and profiled a 13-year-old phenom named Connor Bedard. When I met him later in the season, he looked every bit his age, wearing a wrinkled suit with a ketchup stain on the left cuff. I had just watched him score two goals in a game for the West Vancouver Academy, and as he tried to deal with a rogue thatch of hair that kept getting in his eyes during our post-game chat, I kept questioning myself about the ethical implications of identifying someone that young as a future NHL star.
The guy who used to run this magazine, Bob McKenzie, always had a cautionary tale about putting players that young on display. His name is Pierre Dupuis, and at the age of 13 he was drawing comparisons to Mario Lemieux after dominating the Quebec Peewee Tournament. By the time he was 19, Dupuis was out of hockey after a failed career in the OHL. I spoke with him a few years back, not long after he had gone into his garage and thrown away all his hockey trophies. Back in 2000, a seven-year-old from North Bay named Mitchell Davis scored 109 goals in 17 games, breaking the “record” set by Wayne Gretzky. He is now literally a question in the game Trivial Pursuit. I spoke to him 12 years later when he decided to leave the game for good at the age of 19. “My parents have done so much for me, and I feel like I’m letting them down,” he said at the time. “I’m letting my family down. I’m letting North Bay down.”
Today’s phenom could be tomorrow’s NHL superstar or, in the case of Dupuis, tomorrow’s hydro lineman. But it’s becoming more and more difficult to pump the brakes when there are so many special talents coming along. In fact, the term “generational talent” has already become passe because we do not have to wait a generation for them to emerge anymore. If you live in a major city in any country where hockey has a presence, go out to a minor game and you’ll be blown away by the level of talent some of these kids possess. There has never, ever, been a time when there have been this many players who have been this good. Players are applying for and being granted exceptional status from Hockey Canada more often than ever, and the trend is continuing this year. The WHL, which had Matthew Savoie apply last season only to be rejected by Hockey Canada, will almost certainly have two players who will merit serious consideration – Bedard, who received an exemption to play minor midget and had 25 points in his first 10 games as a 14-year-old, and Brayden Yager, a 14-year-old who is leading his Saskatoon Contacts team in scoring. There’s little doubt they will go 1-2 in the WHL’s 2020 bantam draft. Adam Fantilli, who will be a shoo-in for No. 1 in the OHL draft in 2020, doesn’t turn 15 until December, and will be playing on an under-19 prep team at Kimball Union this season.
That’s a lot of exceptional talent. And there are countless others out there who are almost as good. From Sidney Crosby to Connor McDavid to Jack Hughes to Shane Wright to Bedard, these young phenoms are carrying around a ton of pressure to succeed, and they are doing it. It’s up to us to make sure the ones we bring to the attention of the hockey world are truly the ones with the best chances of succeeding. Just recently, a very reputable skills coach told me the next great phenom was a kid playing in Toronto. I called up his coach, a former player who had a long career in the NHL, and was told that the kid is indeed a special talent but still has a ton to learn about the game and what it takes to be elite. I decided not to write about him. “Talk to me after Christmas and I’ll have a better idea then,” the coach said.
I’ll do that. Meanwhile, we’ll do the delicate dance that it requires to ensure we’re not putting undue pressure on teenagers who have done nothing, aside from being extremely gifted, to deserve it.