“Give me fuel, give me fire, give me that which I desire.”
Metallica released Fuel in 1997, six years before Olen Zellweger was born. Although not a song of his generation, the lyrics certainly appeal to him.
The 16-year-old defenceman is patrolling the blue-line for Canada Red this week at the 2019 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge, one of 66 Canadians chosen to represent the Great White North in Medicine Hat, Alta., and Swift Current, Sask.
What sets him apart from his peers, though, is that Zellweger is the lone member of the Canadian contingent who didn‘t receive an invite to Canada’s national under-17 development camp last July in Calgary.
(Canada Black forward Landon McCallum was the only other player not to be in Calgary in the summer, but he had to withdraw from camp with an injury after being invited.)
Zellweger isn’t shy to admit that not getting an invite was tough. But the Fort Saskatchewan, Alta., native didn’t spend too much time feeling bad for himself – he vowed to work harder and earn a spot at the annual showcase of international up-and-comers.
“That was the first time in my life that I wasn’t invited to a camp. It was pretty different for me and I had to just keep working hard,” says Zellweger, who skates for the Everett Silvertips during the WHL season. “I wasn’t too happy. It made me want to work harder and show that I belonged at camp and at the U17 tournament. It was fuel for me.”
Zellweger wasn’t an unknown to Hockey Canada, having helped Alberta win bronze at the 2019 Canada Winter Games last February in Red Deer. But it was his play in the fall that turned some heads with scouts and prompted them to include Zellweger on the Red roster.
Brad McEwen is the head scout for the Program of Excellence with Hockey Canada. As such, he is responsible for moving players up through the system, from U17 to U18 (Hlinka Gretzky Cup and IIHF U18 World Championship) and, finally, to the U20 level and pinnacle of the POE program – the IIHF World Junior Championship.
He knows better than anyone that one non-invite is far from an international career killer.
“We saw Olen in a number of events. He’s a good player and we knew that,” says McEwen. “It was (Western regional scout) Jason Smart who identified him again after seeing him play with Everett in an exhibition game and brought his name back. I then saw him in a regular season game with Everett and he was playing tons of minutes in all situations.”
Zellweger is the lone 2003-born player on a talented Silvertips team that won nine of its first 12 games before he departed for the Prairies. McEwen talks about Zellweger’s skating and competitiveness but also highlights the fact that there’s no fear or hesitation in how he plays the game.
Asked to outline his own game, Zellweger describes himself as a two-way defenceman who looks after his own end first but doesn’t mind jumping into the play and chipping in offensively.
His minor hockey stats certainly support that; Zellweger notched 32 points – including 10 goals – with the Bantam Prep team at OHA Edmonton during the 2017-18 season, after which he was taken 42nd by Everett in the WHL Bantam Draft. He then added 27 points in 35 games for the Midget Prep side last year.
There was team success, too. OHA Edmonton claimed the Canadian Sport School Hockey League (CSSHL) championship in the Bantam Prep division in 2018 and reached the CSSHL Midget Prep final in 2019.
It’s not surprising, then, that he will run across a few friendly faces this week; Zellweger and Red teammate Kyle Masters is two of five members of the 2018 CSSHL championship team who made the 66, along with Dylan Guenther and Oscar Plandowski of Canada White, and Canada Black forward Sean Tschigerl.
And with the tournament relatively close to home, Zellweger is excited he’ll have a few family members making the road trip to Swift Current, where Red will play its preliminary-round games.
“I will have my parents here and probably some other relatives. It’s important as I wouldn’t be here without my parents. My family have been super helpful and supportive,” he says.
“I’m really excited about this tournament. We have a really good team here and it would be awesome if we could take a run at a medal.”