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When Brendan Shanahan played on a Mississauga Reps peewee team that won the famous Quebec International tournament years ago, he figured he might have been the sixth best player on his team.
And that was being optimistic.
Two of his teammates, Bryan Marchment and Jason Woolley, like him, ended up playing a long time in the National Hockey League. Shanahan played his way to the Hockey Hall of Fame.
But the players he remembers being most impressed by are names you wouldn’t know: Steven Glugosh and David D’Amico.
“They were the guys I looked up to,” said Shanahan, now president of the Toronto Maple Leafs. “If you gave Glugosh the puck, it was going in the net. He was the centre, I was the winger and he was the goal scorer.”
That is the oldest story and often most untold story about minor hockey. Talk to almost anyone who plays in the NHL and ask them if they were ever the best player on any team they played for and the answer regularly is no. Ask them who the best player they remember playing with or against and they’ll mention a name you’ve never heard of.
“When I played there weren’t any Connor McDavid’s in my age group, super kids, playing up a year or down a year,” Shanahan said. “Once in a while you’d hear about a kid like Jeff Harding and there weren’t many of those kind of big kids around.”
Harding beat the odds. He went on to play 15 games in the NHL. He never did score an NHL goal.
When Shanahan was drafted by the New Jersey Devils in 1987, Toronto might have been known as the centre of the hockey universe — as much for the passion of the fanbase and the breadth of media coverage is part of the package — but it wasn’t known as a place where hockey players came from.
The narrative then was that the Greater Toronto Area may have represented one quarter of the population of Canada but didn’t produce anywhere near one-quarter of the hockey players. Hockey players came from small hard-working towns with frozen winters. They didn’t come from the big city with the indoor rinks, or the story went.
There were, of course, the outliers like Brad Park, who went to the New York Rangers in the late 1960s and played in Bobby Orr’s shadow for much of his Hall of Fame career. Park is a great a player as Toronto has ever produced but the list has gotten longer and deeper and more impressive over the years.
There was Park and then there was Ken Dryden in goal for the Montreal Canadiens. One definitive playing in the same era as another from the GTA. After them, came Steve Shutt and Rick Middleton, one Hall of Famer and one should have been Hall of Famer. In the 80s, there was Paul Coffey and Dale Hawerchuk, born in Toronto, played in the Oshawa area, both generational players, along with Larry Murphy and Mike Gartner and Shanahan. And in goal, there was Mike Palmateer in the 70s and Sean Burke in the late 80s and 90s.
The talent grew deeper and stronger over time.
In today’s NHL, you can argue without much back and forth, that McDavid, who played a short time for the Marlies of the GTHL, is the most talented player in all of hockey. And just a year ago, late bloomer Mark Giordano of Etobicoke won the Norris Trophy as the game’s best defenceman. And for more than a decade now, Steven Stamkos, who played most of his minor hockey for Markham in the OMHA, has trailed only Alexander Ovechkin in both the shooting and goal scoring department in hockey.
The Toronto factor in the NHL has never been more significant than it is today. In the year in which Giordano won the Norris, defenceman Alex Pietrangelo led the St. Louis Blues to the Stanley Cup alongside Richmond Hill’s goaltender, Jordan Binnington and team captain Ryan O’Reilly, who moved to Toronto to finish his minor hockey years.
And it’s not impossible that former GTHL defenceman, Quinn Hughes, will be named rookie of the year in the NHL this season, assuming there will be awards given out from a season that may not be completed.
Once upon a time, Montreal had the Richard brothers and Mike Bossy and Mario Lemieux and Luc Robitaille and Raymond Bourque and Serge Savard and Martin Brodeur. That list has thinned over the years while the Toronto development has grown significantly.
Any all-Toronto minor hockey roster in today’s NHL would include John Tavares, P.K. Subban, Dougie Hamilton, Mitch Marner, Jason Spezza, Tom Wilson, Tyler Toffoli, Darnell Nurse, and we’re probably missing another 10 players of note.
And that’s not including those no longer playing like the late Peter Zezel, or Mike Murphy or Rick Tocchet, or 60-goal scorer, Dennis Maruk, or John Anderson or Tony Tanti or Steve Thomas. All of them learned their hockey in the GTA.
As did Mark Osborne and Behn Wilson and Trevor Daley, Keith and Wayne Primeau and goaltender, Kevin Weekes.
The best goaltender Shanahan remembers playing against as a kid was Rick Tabaracci. “He was a defenceman for a long time and a really mean defenceman to play against,” said Shanahan. “Then he became a goalie. He came to it, but was really good at it.” Tabaracci went on to play for seven different NHL teams in 12 professional campaigns.
Shanahan played for five different teams himself, six if you count starting and ending in New Jersey. He still remembers so many details of his minor hockey life, the way so many kids growing into their adult years, remember theirs. It’s a time to cherish for all who play — and for the tiny percentage of those who make it big.
“When I went to junior, I thought I was the playmaker,” Shanahan said. “That’s what playing all those years with Glugosh taught me. I was under the misconception that is my job to get somebody else the puck. Very quickly they said to me, you get it, you shoot it. And I started doing that.
“I remember another kid who played on my brother’s lacrosse team. He was amazing at lacrosse and pretty good at hockey,” Shanahan said. The kid’s name: Adam Oates. Hockey Hall of Fame, class of 2012. Another star on the Toronto list of many.
THE GTA ALL-STARS
Brad Park* Paul Coffey*
Larry Murphy* Alex Pietrangelo
P.K. Subban Mark Giordano
Brendan Shanahan* Connor McDavid Eric Lindros*
Steve Shutt* John Tavares Mike Gartner*
Mark Napier Steven Stamkos Rick Middleton
* – member of Hockey Hall of Fame
Honourable mention (or geographically questionable and apologies to those missing)
Dale Hawerchuk; Steve Thomas; Dennis Maruk; Rick Nash; Curtis Joseph; Ryan O’Reilly; Mike Murphy; Tom McCarthy; Rick Tocchet; Peter Zezel; Mitch Marner; Tyler Seguin; Jeff Skinner; Tony Tanti; John Anderson; Quinn Hughes; Darell Nurse; Jordan Binnington; Kevin Weekes; Trevor Daley; Behn Wilson; Keith Primeau; Mark Osborne; Jeff O’Neill.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020