For most elite Midget hockey players in this country, the first point of contact on the national stage is the TELUS Cup.
It is also a valuable point of reference as their careers move along in the game, especially if the tournament ends in team triumph or personal success.
Seven days in length every April, Canada’s National Midget Championship celebrates its 40th anniversary this year in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., with teams representing five regionals and a host side all vying for national supremacy.
Over its history, the tournament has provided a forum for great players like Steve Yzerman, Joe Sakic, Ron Francis, Patrick Roy and Sidney Crosby to elevate their game against the best competition in the country.
And by the time another decade passes and the TELUS Cup turns 50, it’s likely other names will be added to the list and eventually be as household as those that have come before them.
For instance, notable TELUS Cup alumni like 2012 tournament MVP Laurent Dauphin and NHL first-round draft picks Slater Koekkoek and Malcolm Subban, both of whom played in 2010, have not only absorbed a great hockey experience, but used the tournament as a springboard to the next level of the game.
From Major Junior opportunities to national team duty with Hockey Canada to the professional ranks, the TELUS Cup is a solid stepping stone along that pathway.
For Morgan Rielly, the TELUS Cup became a memorable waypoint in his career when he helped the Notre Dame Hounds to the second of back-to-back national championships in Lévis, Que., in 2010.
Now a member of the American Hockey League’s Toronto Marlies, the highly-skilled defenceman considers his experience at the tournament to be a game changer in what’s transpired in the last three seasons of his career.
“We were all treated like pro hockey players and the level of hockey was tremendous,” said the West Vancouver, B.C., product. “All around it was a great hockey experience and is certainly a highlight in my career for sure.”
A 15-year-old during the 2009-10 season, Rielly turned 16 just a month prior to his Hounds qualifying for the tournament. They advanced to the gold medal game after finishing the round-robin undefeated (2-0-3) and beat the St. John’s Fog Devils in the semifinals. In the end, they outlasted the Subban and the Mississauga Reps 3-2 in the final to become only the third team in the history of the tournament to repeat as champions.
It was the importance of each tournament game that resonated with Rielly as the week progressed. He admits the culture and emphasis on winning nightly to better your team’s chances of advancing to Sunday’s final aided in his development and growth as a player.
“I think we all benefitted from the experience,” said the Toronto Maple Leafs’ first-round draft pick last summer. “We knew as a team we had to play well every game, like it was the championship game. Plus, you’re always playing against the best players in the country. It was a huge step and it helped me make the jump to junior hockey.”
The following season Rielly, now 19, graduated to the Western Hockey League’s Moose Jaw Warriors, spending three seasons there before moving on this spring to the Baby Leafs.
Another West Vancouver product, Sam Reinhart, tells a simliar story about his TELUS Cup journey.
As the youngest of three brothers in a hockey-playing family that includes his father, Paul, a former NHL defenceman, Reinhart felt privileged to participate in the 2011 event in St. John’s, N.L., as a member of the Vancouver North West Giants.
Older brothers Max and Griffin were never fortunate enough with their midget teams to qualify for the national championship. But that didn’t mean their youngest sibling didn’t appreciate the exclusive experience, even though he spent a lot of time using their hockey exposure as a guideline for his own career.
“They were never fortunate enough to play in the tournament, although they did get close to getting there,” said Reinhart, a forward with the WHL’s Kootenay Ice. “Most things that I’ve been able to do in my career so far I’ve been able to watch them go through it before. So this was a little different to do it myself.”
Even though Reinhart’s experience at the TELUS Cup didn’t produce a national title for his team, he and linemate Alex Kerfoot nearly cleaned up on the individual awards that spring. Reinhart won the Top Scorer award and was also selected as the tournament’s Top Forward, while Kerfoot took the event’s MVP hardware.
Obviously having that type of success in late April at a national tournament and being resilient enough to play nearly 80 games brings with it more opportunities to ascend in the game going forward.
That is clearly the case for Reinhart, who is highly touted as a top-five prospect for the 2014 NHL Entry Draft.
However, back in 2011 after his club lost in the TELUS Cup bronze medal game to Lions du Lac St. Louis, he finished the season as a 15-year-old with Kootenay and contributed to their run to a WHL championship and a Memorial Cup appearance.
“It was right around that time that I was going to make the jump to the WHL,” said Reinhart, 17. “So it was a great experience for me in terms of preparing for that. It was a big step for sure in me progressing to that level of competition.”
Furthermore, the past two years Reinhart has closed out his hockey season playing with Hockey Canada’s Program of Excellence and Canada’s National Men’s U18 Team. This includes a current posting with the team as its captain, as it vies for gold at the 2013 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship in Sochi, Russia.