Pride and pressure on display at Top Prospects Game

By Ken McKenna

Prior to the 2009 Home Hardware CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game, it would have been easy to single out eventual first overall selection John Tavares as the player that would rise to the occasion as the Player of the Game. Instead, Tavares suffered a shoulder injury that would hinder him for the rest of the season.

Stepping up as the star of the 6-1 Team Orr victory was the relatively unknown Cody Eakins, who earned this honor as a result of a 2-goal, high-energy performance. It is generally thought that Eakins improved his draft position as a result of his Top Prospects Game performance.

Who will step up in the 2010 version of this event? Will another potential first overall pick in the form of the Windsor Spitfires’ Taylor Hall or the Plymouth Whalers’ Tyler Seguin soak up the limelight? Or, will another Cody Eakins assert his credentials as a true, top NHL Draft prospect?

For the players taking part in this year’s game, they face the task at hand with a mixture of pride and trepidation. For the Kitchener Rangers’ Jeff Skinner, the former emotion is certainly evident.

It’s definitely an honor”, said the OHL scoring star. “At an event like this, with all the top prospects from across Canada, you just enjoy the experience. That’s what I’m definitely going to try to do, and hopefully have a great game.”

The trepidation factor comes into play as a result of the throng of NHL scouts in attendance. While it is probably a stretch to say that a player can truly hurt their standing with sub-par showing in the Top Prospects Game, there is nevertheless a reason that somewhere on the order of 200 scouts will be sitting in the stands this evening.

For Steven Shipley of the OHL‘s Owen Sound Attack, the recipe for dealing with the pressure is a fairly simple one.

You just have to go out and try to block it out”, shrugged Shipley. “You just have to go out and play hard, compete hard every shift. If you go out and do that, the rest will take care of itself.”

While most of the players seem outwardly unfazed by the attention paid to their performance at this event, celebrity coach Don Cherry has seen first-hand how this game is more than just your average All-Star game to those participating.

These kids take this game pretty seriously”, said Cherry. “The locker room is quiet, like a playoff game.”

To be sure, some players expect to be a part of this event. But others, like Calgary Hitmen defenseman Matt MacKenzie, who were named to the roster after other players were forced to step aside due to injury, the opportunity is appreciated.

I think, growing up, you watch (the game), you always dream to be there, but you never expect to be a part of it”, stated MacKenzie. “But once your name is called, it’s kind of surreal. But I was really pleased that I had made the team.”

Perhaps the player that has most embodied the fun aspect of the event has been the Erie Otters’ Andrew Yogan. The gregarious center, who along with Nino Niederreiter was the player that seemed to thoroughly enjoy the Skills Competition on Tuesday night, seems to relish the spotlight that other players sometimes dread.

I’m just looking to turn some heads”, said Yogan. “Just have some fun out there. We deserve to be here, we’ve worked hard. I’m gonna cherish the moment, maybe put a puck in the net or something.”