From off the radar to an in­vite

Brett Lea­son earns his way to se­lec­tion camp

Sentinel-Review (Woodstock) - - OPINION - KYLE CICERELLA

TORONTO — Brett Lea­son has never had much at­ten­tion from Hockey Canada in his three years of ma­jor ju­nior.

The 19-year-old for­ward wasn’t a mem­ber of Canada’s pro­gram at the un­der-17 or U18 lev­els, and he wasn’t in­vited to the Sum­mer Show­case this past Au­gust, where the top Cana­dian play­ers come to­gether for their first real au­di­tion for the an­nual world ju­nior squad.

He forced Hockey Canada to take no­tice, though, with his start to the 2018-19 sea­son with his Prince Al­bert Raiders. And af­ter a strong show­ing at the re­cent Canada-Rus­sia Se­ries, he’s now been re­warded with an in­vite to se­lec­tion camp along with 33 other play­ers ahead of the 2019 world ju­nior cham­pi­onship that be­gins on Box­ing Day.

“Feels re­ally good, al­ways been a dream to play for the coun­try so I’m glad I have a chance to fight for that. I did not think it was re­al­is­tic,” said the six-foot-four, 199pound Lea­son.

All it took from the Cal­gary na­tive to get some recog­ni­tion was a league-best 27 goals and 60 points on his cur­rent 27-game point streak to lead the WHL in both cat­e­gories.

“I think he was a real stand­out in the Rus­sia se­ries, re­ally im­pressed with his abil­ity to work the puck on the boards, get the puck into his team­mates hands, and also his skat­ing,” said Canada head coach Tim Hunter. “I watched him play last year and his skat­ing has re­ally im­proved in the sum­mer and this sea­son and it’s a big rea­son he’s a lead­ing scorer in the CHL.” Lea­son’s head coach with Prince Al­bert, Marc Hab­scheid, says he saw the un­drafted right-handed cen­tre mak­ing ma­jor strides in his game last sea­son af­ter be­ing ac­quired in a trade with the TriCity Amer­i­cans.

“Af­ter the (trade) dead­line last year you could tell he was right there, one of our bet­ter play­ers at the end of last year and had a good play­off, he was right there,” said Hab­scheid. “Then he had a good sum­mer, trained well. He’s found that level, con­fi­dence level and it’s gone real well for him.”

Added Lea­son: “I got passed over the past two (NHL) drafts so it kind of mo­ti­vated me to be the best I can. I’m play­ing with lots of con­fi­dence and my coach is just let­ting me do my thing pretty much.” The ma­jor­ity of Hockey Canada’s se­lec­tions for camp come from the CHL, with 29 of the 34 named to camp cur­rently play­ing in ei­ther the WHL, On­tario Hockey League or Que­bec Ma­jor Ju­nior Hockey League.

De­fence­men Ian Mitchell (Den­ver), Ja­cob Bernard-Docker (North Dakota) and Cameron Crotty (Bos­ton Univer­sity) and for­ward Shane Bow­ers (Bos­ton Univer­sity) are the lone Cana­di­ans play­ing out­side the CHL to make the cut.

The Cana­dian squad will also have for­ward Gabriel Vi­lardi join­ing them at camp. His sta­tus was un­known af­ter start­ing the year on the in­jured list with the L.A. Kings, but he has re­cov­ered and is cur­rently on a con­di­tion­ing as­sign­ment in the Amer­i­can Hockey League.

In to­tal, the OHL leads se­lec­tion camp with 14 in­vites. The QMJHL has eight and the WHL has seven. “Right now the cy­cle is there’s a lot more skilled for­wards in the OHL and we’re ex­cited about that skill,” Hunter said about the camp’s makeup. “But like all play­ers, they have to check the boxes on the style we want to play. They’re no dif­fer­ent than any­one else, they need to be flex­i­ble in the en­vi­ron­ment.” The battle in net will be be­tween Michael DiPi­etro, Ian Scott and Matthew Vil­lalta.

DiPi­etro, the front run­ner for the start­ing nod in goal, was a late cut from last year’s squad, although he gained some in­ter­na­tional ex­pe­ri­ence this past sum­mer at the men’s world cham­pi­onship, back­ing up NHLers Cur­tis McEl­hin­ney and Darcy Kuem­per.

Canada will have a large group of new faces in the locker room with only two play­ers re­turn­ing to de­fend its gold medal from the 2018 world ju­nior hockey cham­pi­onship.

For­wards Alex For­men­ton and Maxime Com­tois, both 19, are the lone re­turnees.

For­wards Robert Thomas and Michael Ras­mussen were hope­fuls for the squad but haven’t been re­leased by their NHL clubs. They still could, though it ap­pears highly un­likely. Hunter says his fo­cus is on the 34 play­ers named to camp. “Any time you can have re­turn­ing play­ers it ben­e­fits not only them but the group they’re with, shar­ing their past ex­pe­ri­ences and guid­ing them along,” said Hunter. “Right now we just have two and we’re not fo­cus­ing on any­one else. We’re ex­cited about Alex and Max lead­ing the group and set­ting the tone at our camp.” Ri­mouski Oceanic for­ward Alexis Lafre­niere is the youngest player in­vited at only 17. He isn’t el­i­gi­ble for the NHL draft un­til 2020.

For­ward Jaret Anderson-Dolan has been in­vited, but is cur­rently side­lined with an in­jury. He will be mon­i­tored and a de­ci­sion on his ros­ter spot will be de­ter­mined ahead of the tour­na­ment. Se­lec­tion camp, which was an­nounced in Cal­gary, will take place from Dec. 10 to Dec. 14 in Vic­to­ria and will be fol­lowed by three ex­hi­bi­tion games against a group of U Sports all-stars. Hunter is ex­pected to trim the fi­nal ros­ter to 22 play­ers by Dec. 15.

The Cana­dian team hits the ice on Dec. 26 for its world ju­nior opener against Den­mark in a Group A matchup at Rogers Arena in Van­cou­ver.

CODIE MCLACH­LAN/POST­MEDIA NET­WORK FILES

Af­ter spend­ing much of his Cana­dian Hockey League ca­reer off of Hockey Canada’s radar, 19-year-old Prince Al­bert Raiders’ for­ward Brett Lea­son has been in­vited to the Team Canada se­lec­tion camp. Lea­son has a league-best 27 goals and 60 points on his cur­rent 27-game point streak to lead the WHL.

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