Rick Nash. Sam Gagner. John Tavares. Connor McDavid. Sam Bennett.
They’re all Toronto Marlboros alumni, and they all wore the Team Canada jersey at various levels of the Hockey Canada Program of Excellence.
This week, five members of the Marlboros’ 2013-14 Minor Midget AAA team are fighting to follow in the footsteps of their fellow Marlies at Hockey Canada’s national under-17 development camp.
Matt Cairns, Michael McLeod, Reagan O’Grady, Cliff Pu and Taylor Raddysh are all competing for a spot to represent Canada at the 2014 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge in Sarnia-Lambton, Ont., this November.
In Canadian minor hockey, the Toronto Marlboros are a powerhouse organization, producing a steady stream of players that go on to the Canadian Hockey League, university teams and the professional ranks.
Just look at this year’s NHL Entry Draft – three former Marlboros were selected in the first round alone: Bennett (fourth overall to Calgary), Nicholas Ritchie (10th to Anaheim) and Joshua Ho-Sang (28th to the New York Islanders).
“It’s such a storied organization, coming through there is an honour and makes me realize just how hard I have to work to be where I want to be,” said Cairns.
With 108 players invited to the camp from across Canada, the five Marlies are at a slight advantage, having some familiar faces around.
“We were all wondering what it was going to be like,” said McLeod, the recipient of the Marlboros’ Buck Houle Award last season in recognition of his on-ice performance, leadership and loyalty. “But we were excited to be together and looking forward to a big camp like this.”
“When we found out we were going it was all excitement and nerves but on the flight here we were all together and it helped a lot, calming us down,” said Pu.
For O’Grady, their invitations to the development camp cap off an incredible year.
“With [us] being here this week to embrace it together is just a great feeling, not only for us players, but it goes to show that the Toronto Marlboros organization is one of the top organizations in Canada,” he said.
The Marlboros have that reputation because they attract top talent. And they attract top talent because they have coaches like Hockey Hall of Fame defenceman Paul Coffey, who served as an assistant coach with the Minor Midget Marlies last season.
Coffey, whose son Blake was a member of the Marlboros, got glowing reviews.
“He taught us about working hard and staying mentally focused and not getting distracted while we’re here,” Pu said. “He told us Canada’s bigger than just Ontario, so we’d get to see a lot of talent that we haven’t seen before."
“He says ‘if you can’t skate, you can’t play,’” Cairns said. “He’s really developed my skating and made me a smarter player.”
“He told us to embrace it and to have fun but at the same time stay focused and be prepared to play the games and for all the hard work you have to put in to make the teams,” O’Grady added.
But it’s not just the NHL-grade coaching. The Marlboros are well structured, with a strong network of support for their players.
“It’s really professional,” Pu said. “Not a lot of minor hockey organizations are that well organized or treat their players as well as the Marlboros. And not a lot of teams have a Hall of Famer as a coach.”