Canada’s national game is, in fact, lacrosse. And that sport’s loss has been a huge gain for the Great White North’s unofficial game as Ottawa 67’s captain Sean Monahan has taken the lessons learned from the field and parlayed them into a potential top-10 selection at the upcoming 2013 NHL Draft.
“Lacrosse is a game of timing and positioning; learning how to get in and out of the seams in lacrosse helps you in hockey learn how to get open for the puck,” Monahan explained. “It’s especially about hand-eye coordination — when the puck’s up in the air or coming at you, you know how to use your stick; in lacrosse you obviously have to catch the ball.
“Obviously there’s the physical part too. Lacrosse is a very physical game: slash, cross-checking, and whatnot; it all got me ready for hockey, and taught me how to take a hit and roll away from a hit — it was a big help.”
Monahan played both sports at an elite level up until three years ago and said he was hard pressed to choose a favorite.
“It was pretty much 50/50,” he said. “Right when hockey ended, I’d pack up my stuff and go play lacrosse for the summer. It just came down to time. When I got drafted in the O, I didn’t want to get injured and come into training camp hurt. So I took a year off and just trained. I came into my OHL season and ever since then I haven’t gone back to lacrosse.”
And the on-ice results speak for themselves. Monahan captained the Mississauga Rebels to the 2010 OHL Cup title, earning tournament MVP in the process. He also won gold at the 2011 World Under-17 Challenge with Team Ontario.
ISS has him ranked eighth overall in its February rankings for the 2013 NHL Draft. The late-1994-born center is also the consensus top pick out of the Ontario Hockey League. He’s been tearing up the OHL — he’s accounted for 26 goals and 69 points in just 50 games to date, and he was named Ottawa’s captain this year despite only turning 18 in October.
“Yeah, I like [the pressure of being captain] a lot. It’s pretty special for me to wear that letter and I think that I do everything I can to wear it with pride,” Monahan explained. “I try and be a leader on and off the ice every day, regardless of the game or practice, or even just a dinner with the boys, I try to take charge, make sure that everything goes well, and that everyone gets along.”
And that added pressure of the captaincy has had the effect of eliminating some of the pressure of performing in this, his NHL Draft-eligible season, as has the support of his teammates.
“I knew I wanted to be a leader on this team this year, so that was my attitude when I came in,” he explained. “That’s what’s driving me to get better each and every day — that was my goal and it’s helped me avoid paying too much attention to the draft.
“I think it’s also just having good teammates. They treat you like anyone else. Focusing on the game and enjoying the game. Coming to the rink every day and just loving to be there — it helps you not think too much on the draft; you just think about being a hockey player.”
Ottawa’s associate coach Misha Donskov said the team has been thrilled with Monahan’s ability to wear the “C” with distinction, adding that anyone who knows what the Brampton, ON native is made of will not be surprised that he’s so effective in the role.
“He’s a very good leader. He’s a leader that will say something when something needs to be said. He’s someone who will lead by example,” Donskov explained. “We all know he has outstanding skill, but to me, what makes Sean Monahan special is his compete level. He will not be outworked out there. He’s a great team player.
“I think first and foremost, Monny’s a kid that oozes character. He’s one of those kids that when you have a 10 o’clock meeting, he’s there at nine o’clock. He does all the little things right and he does all the little things well. He wants to be a pro. He’s very focused; I think he’s done a great job of handling the tremendous amount of pressure this year.”
“There’s a guy, Dalton Smith last year, he was a great leader, a hard worker, and he gets along with everyone. I think watching him develop and to see how hard he works to see how much he wants it I think was a big help and I learned a lot from him,” Monahan explained. “I think being a leader is natural. I don’t think it’s something that you can work towards — you either want to be a leader or you want to be a passenger. If you want to be a leader, I think it’s going to help you in the long run.
“And regardless of whether you have a letter or not, you’ve just got to stick up for yourself and be a good team guy — I think that will get you a long way.”
But despite all the success, one moment eluded him. Monahan didn’t get the chance to join fellow top-ranked prospects Nathan Mackinnon, Seth Jones, Sasha Barkov, and Jonathan Drouin on the international stage in Ufa at the World Junior Hockey Championship. Although he received some heady praise from Team Canada coach Steve Spott for having NHL-ready awareness, Monahan said he’s still chafing from being cut.
“It didn’t really take out the sting, that’s for sure. I was pretty upset,” he said. “But it happened and you learn from it and build from it.
“I just have to use it as motivation and if I get that opportunity again next year, I’m going to have to go in and try to earn another spot there.”
That NHL-ready vision is something that Monahan has trouble describing, but admits it’s something he’s had all of his hockey-playing career.
“I think it’s knowing what’s going to happen before it happens and being able to see the ice maybe a little bit better than others. I think that’s what it means,” he said. “I think it’s something you’re born with — it’s just the way I’ve always been able to play since I was younger, I could always find the open guy. I just kind of used my game and my smarts out there.”
And while he didn’t share the big stage with his fellow elite, draft-eligible peers, he can’t help but know how they’re doing.
“I try not to focus on that, but obviously they’re good players. Their names come up and you see their stats, you see some of their highlights — it’s fun to watch and see with whom I’m competing against in the draft,” he explained. “They’re great players and it’s cool to see, but it’s nothing that I look at everyday or every week.”
Donskov added that Monahan hasn’t pouted or sulked since returning from the World Junior camp. Instead, he’s channeled that disappointment into on-ice performance.
“He’s a kind of player who will only use that as fuel and use it for motivation; it won’t get him down,” Donskov said. “I’ve seen him play outstanding hockey…and I’ve seen him really be a catalyst and a guy that helps our team win.”
Monahan explained that he takes pride that the style of game he’s played since the minor ranks still serves him well — he’s committed to a two-way style of game. But he also added that he feels it’s up to him to help deliver the 67's from the OHL’s basemenet.
“I’m more of a leader this year, and I know what’s coming every game,” he explained. “But I think I also have to change my game a little bit this year. I have to play a little more defensively, I have to try to control the game a little more to help my team win.”
You can see the change in the 67's fortunes reflected in Monahan’s plus/minus totals. The past two years, Monahan has had seasons of plus-24 and plus-25. This year, on a team that’s 15-41-0-4, he’s a minus-14 — a feat that’s all the more impressive when you consider that Ottawa’s allowed exactly 100 more goals than it has scored. Only two players on the 67's roster that have played as many or more games as Monahan have a better – but still negative – plus/minus rating.
“We have a different team. The plus/minus is hard to control sometimes and we’re not the same team that we were the past two years,” he said. “Plus/minus can mean a lot if you’re a highly plus guy, but if you’re in a tough situation, it’s tough to stay up there. I don’t think I’ve changed my game to cause it to change.”
But Monahan is quick to highlight areas in which he feels he needs to improve.
“It’s mainly my skating. If I can get faster and work on my first few steps, it’s going to benefit me a lot,” he said. “I also want to be more confident with the puck. I think if I can do that, it’s going to help me out, as well. Skating-wise I think you just get stronger. As you get older, you get stronger and your legs get bigger and you’re able to move your feet quicker.
“I’ve just got to continue working hard every practice; getting in the gym and trying to get stronger. Eating the proper food to finish the year and stay healthy. And once the [OHL] season’s over, I want to get right back to training hard and trying to get better in the off-season, so that I can be ready for camp.”
Donskov has no doubt that his captain will be up to the challenge.
“He’s an everyday-er. He really, really enjoys being at the rink. He enjoys practice, he enjoys being around the guys. I think coming to the rink’s an outlet for him,” Donskov explained. “He’s got great skill, he’s got a great release, he passes the puck well. He’s the type of player that makes the people around him better and he can finish. He’s a special player. Again, I can see him having a long career as a pro. He’s an everyday-er and he’s an outstanding kid.
“I think this will be a very, very important summer for him in the weight room. He’s got a decent-sized frame, but he’s still young and can still fill out a little bit.”
There’s a chance all that work will translate into a chance to be the face of the future for his favorite team growing up. Brampton’s just a few minutes away from Toronto and Monahan admitted that it would be special to potentially wear the blue and white in his future.
“For sure. They’re my hometown team and watching them growing up was pretty special,” he said. “If I had the opportunity to have a tryout there or be drafted by them, it would be awesome.”
Leafs’ fans will be thrilled if the two-way, dominant Monahan suits up for their squad and emulates his heroes.
“My favourite player on the Leafs was [Mats] Sundin, but my favourite player overall was probably either Joe Sakic or Steve Yzerman,” he said. “I kind of like comparing myself to [Jonathan] Toews or Jordan Staal — they’re all great players.”
And with models like that to follow, it’s no surprise that Monahan continues to display a positive, team-first attitude, even on a last-place team,
“I think team success really helps individual success,” Monahan said. “I think once you’re rolling as a team and getting things done together, it helps yourself.
“That’s what I try to do — I try to be a team guy first and I think that’s what’s been helping me over my last few years here.”