Top Prospect Game not just another showcase

By Ken McKenna

Each year, the CHL Top Prospects Game provides a bevy plot lines and plenty of star power for the average hockey fan. This year’s event is no exception, as many of the top 2009 talent gathers in Oshawa, Ontario to display their wares to the NHL scouts in attendance.

While this event appears to be not much more than a All-Star game to some, it can be serious business for many of the players involved. One person well acquainted with the importance of this game to the players is the Coach for Team Cherry, former NHL coach and current host of Hockey Night in Canada’s “Coach’s Corner”, Don Cherry. Cherry has been involved with this game on more than a few occasions, including the inaugural game in 1996.

In ’96 when I did the first one in Maple Leaf Gardens, I thought, "Ah well, an All-Star Game, I’ll go up there and have some fun", said the gregarious Cherry. “And I walked in, and it was like the seventh game of the Stanley Cup, there was no joking around. I think the most vicious game we played was in Kitchener, with Dion Phaneuf. he came up to me before the game and said, "I’m going to be in the National Hockey League, and I’m gonna show you." And he hit a guy, it was such a hit, then a kid (Paul Bissonette) stepped in for a fight.”

But these games are not fooling around. These kids, even now, are in there on the bike getting ready in the dressing room. You’d think there would be a little more laughing and stuff going on. But it is just like the seventh game of the Stanley Cup for them.”

Cherry’s counterpart on the opposing team bench, NHL great Bobby Orr, recognizes the gravity of this game to some of the players, trying to be a steadying influence for his squad.

I just try to keep them relaxed”, said Orr of his charges. “They are a part of this game because of the style they play. So, don’t change! If your a physical player, play physical. If your game is speed, use your speed. Just play your game, you got here for that reason.”

For their part, most of the players involved with this event seem to be taking the atmosphere and hype in stride. Calvin de Haan, a defenseman for the host team Oshawa Generals, echoes the sentiments of most of the players interviewed.

I don’t really think about (the pressure) that much, it’s just one game out of 68”, shrugged the young defenseman. “If you have one bad game it shouldn’t affect your status that much because you still have other games to play this season. I just try to treat it as another hockey game and do what I do best.”

Of course, like any hockey event involving star players in a one-time situation, the Top Prospect Game tends to be more of an offensive affair. Indeed, for a defenseman, it can be tough to stand out defensively in a game such as this. de Haan takes the approach of adapting to the situation provided.

l’ll just play well defensively and try not letting guys beat me”, stated de Haan. “Maybe jump in on the play a bit more, and get in on the offense.”

For the goaltenders, the game can turn into a shooting gallery. Goaltender Nathan Lieuwen, the backstop for Team Cherry in this game and for the WHL‘s Kootenay Ice, seems to welcome the increased intensity of this contest.

I just take this game as a challenge”, said Lieuwen.  "It’s some of the best shooters from around the country shooting on me, so I think it is a real good test. I’ll just show what I can do out there.”

Another facet of this year’s game is the number of player’s with NHL bloodlines. Four players, including Brayden Schenn (Brandon Wheat Kings), Marcus Foligno (Sudbury Wolves), Carter Ashton (Lethbridge Hurricanes), and Landon Ferraro (Red Deer Rebels) all have family members that either are or were NHL players.

For Schenn, he has the added advantage of having a brother, Luke, that played in this contest last year. For the most part, the elder Schenn kept his advice simple for his younger brother.

He just said to play your game, be yourself, and don’t try to change anything for one game”, Schenn related.  "Just keep it pretty simple out there, and everything will work out.”

That’s good advice, and advice that the game’s coaches would agree is worth following.