January 18, 2016
Courtesy: Canadian Hockey League
By: Josh Sweetland
The 2016 BMO CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game is just two weeks away and Don Cherry, who has accumulated a wealth of memories and anecdotes from his extensive involvement in the annual showcase, is as excited as ever.
Canada’s household hockey name returns for his 16th game behind the bench and is optimistic about the team set before him as he looks to get back on the winning track against long-time friend and Hall of Fame defenceman Bobby Orr.
“We’re going to win,” said Cherry on Wednesday. “I always say we’re going to win, but I picked the team and we’ll be ready to go. We’ve got some great players here and it’s going to be a real dog fight.”
Team Cherry is headlined by Vancouver Giants sophomore centreman Tyler Benson who was named captain of Cherry’s squad in an announcement on Wednesday. The former first overall pick in the 2013 WHL Bantam Draft will be accompanied on Team Cherry by former first overall OHL draft pick Jakob Chychrun (Sarnia Sting) and Canadian World Junior winger Julien Gauthier (Val-d’Or Foreurs) among several other ‘A’ rated prospects by NHL Central Scouting.
Benson hopes to follow in the footsteps of former Giants star Gilbert Brule, who led Team Cherry to an 8-4 win back in 2005 with the only hat-trick ever scored in the history of the event.
Cherry remembers the game very well.
“I remember we were late in the third period and Gilbert had two goals at the time,” he said. “I leaned over to Daniel Ryder and asked him if he’d mind letting Gilbert take his shift and he said that would be fine. Gilbert ended up getting the hat-trick and we won the game. That was a good one.”
While Benson suits up in the friendly confines of Pacific Coliseum, Sarnia Sting defenceman Jakob Chychrun, who was named an assistant captain on Wednesday, heads to Vancouver having already made a strong impression on his coach.
“We were at a GTHL game a few years ago in Toronto and his dad brought him up to play,” said Cherry of the young Chychrun. “He was so dominant in the games I saw him play, so much bigger than everyone else. He looked like he could go through the whole team by himself.”
Highly regarded prospects in Benson and Chychrun will see their fair share of ice in the game, but Cherry is quick to emphasize that in a showcase such as this, everyone gets their shifts.
“I’ve coached a lot of exceptional kids in this game from Nathan MacKinnon (2013) to Sam Reinhart (2014) and the one thing you can’t do is favour certain guys. When you start doing that, someone else gets short-changed and that’s not what this is about. You just let them go and play.”
Though his team hasn’t come out on the winning end too often in recent years, Cherry says he always looks forward to seeing players use the game as a launching pad to success. Cherry recalls one such example from all the way back in 1997.
“I’ve never seen anyone really ever fall out of favour as a result of one of these games, but I sure have seen guys really take off,” he said. “I remember when Daniel Cleary (Belleville Bulls) played in this game and he was just fantastic. I think that’s one of the reasons why he went where he did in the draft that year.”
Cleary scored both of Team Cherry’s two goals in the game at Maple Leaf Gardens and went on to be drafted 13th overall by the Chicago Blackhawks in the 1997 NHL Draft.
“I can’t stress how much I’ve noticed that the kids really prepare and take this game very seriously,” Cherry stated. “I think they’re more intense ahead of this one than they are for a playoff game. I look forward to being a part of it every year.”
13 CHL Players who competed in the BMO CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game in St. Catharines, ON, last year were selected in the first round of the 2015 NHL Draft, including Team Orr MVP Travis Konecny (Sarnia Sting) who led the way with two goals and an assist in a 6-0 victory.
The next crop of bright young CHL prospects are eagerly awaiting their chance to make an impression on Thursday January 28th in Vancouver, BC, when the puck drops on the 21st BMO CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game at 6:00pm PST/9:00pm EST. Catch the action live across the country on Sportsnet and TVA Sports.