This past summer, Joe Veleno made a statement for Canada. Playing on a line with top 2020 NHL draft prospect Alexis Lafreniere and Chicago Blackhawks center Kirby Dach, Veleno lit up Team USA at the World Junior Summer Showcase in Plymouth, Mich.
Making the feat even more impressive was the fact that the trio didn’t even start off the game together. Dach subbed in for original center Akil Thomas when an early power play resulted in a sinfully delicious Canadian goal. “When you move the puck, the puck does the work, and good things happen,” said Team Canada coach Dale Hunter. “They didn’t do it individually,
they did it as a line, and that’s when lines are successful.”
Canada may not have Dach at its disposal for the world juniors in the Czech Republic given how well he’s playing as an 18-year-old rookie with the Blackhawks, but Thomas has really come on strong in the OHL, while Lafreniere has been a king in the QMJHL. As for Veleno, he’s on a path rarely seen by Canadian teenagers.
Despite being 19, Veleno is playing in the AHL with the Grand Rapids Griffins. That’s because he entered the ‘Q’ one year early, as the first player ever granted exceptional status by the league. Taken first overall by the Saint John Sea Dogs in 2015, Veleno powered through a mountain of hype during an up-and-down junior career that included a trade to Drummondville during his NHL draft year.
Getting a fresh start with the Voltigeurs led to great numbers, and scouts at the time believed the youngster was putting too much pressure on himself, but Veleno was still a late first-rounder when Detroit nabbed him 30th overall in 2018.
“It was a rollercoaster,” Veleno said. “It’s not easy coming into that league as a 15-year-old playing against 19- and 20-year-olds. Once I got some years under my belt, I became the older guy, and things came natural. Getting that experience helped my confidence.”
Last season at 18, Veleno was one of the top threats in the league, piling up 104 points in 59 games with Drummondville while also earning a spot on Canada’s ill-fated world-junior squad. One of his teammates on the international stage – and the owner of 105 points for Rimouski last season – was another phenom: Lafreniere.
Having that experience under my belt makes me feel a lot more confident. It just makes things come natural.
– Joe Veleno
While the dominant left winger didn’t go for exceptional status, he too was a No. 1 pick in the QMJHL draft and will probably repeat that honor in the NHL when the festivities get underway in Montreal this summer. With all that as context, Veleno has been a great ear for his younger compatriot. “I’ve talked to him a lot, and we’ve tried to help each other as two guys from the Quebec League,” Lafreniere said. “He’s so good, and off the ice he’s a real good guy.”
Veleno is more than happy to pass on any of his accrued wisdom to anybody on Team Canada, and that’s an asset for the program’s coaching staff. “You’ve got some young guys, and he’s gone through it,” Hunter said. “He can relate to the anxiety. It’s tough. Your stomach has butterflies, and the first-time guys are trying to impress. Him talking to the young guys helps a lot.”
For Veleno himself, experience will be key to taking his game to the next level at his second WJC. “Once you’re older in this tournament, it becomes a lot easier,” he said. “Last year was my first, and playing against older guys is never easy. Having that experience under my belt makes me feel a lot more confident with and without the puck. It just makes things come natural.”
With his speed and hands, Veleno will be a key contributor when Canada heads to the Czech Republic, no doubt on a mission to erase last year’s humbling exit in the quarterfinal. Given all the ups and downs Veleno has already seen in his young career, it’s fair to say he’ll be prepared for anything. But he wouldn’t trade his
exceptional-status path, either. “It made me a lot more mature as a player and a person,” he said. “Looking back on it, I
really wanted to be the first one in the QMJHL. I learned a lot from that, and it made me a better person.”
This season in Grand Rapids, Veleno is learning plenty of other lessons. He worked out in Detroit during the summer, so he saw how some of the Red Wings prepared for a year of pro hockey, but actually getting on the ice and playing against men is a whole new level of difficulty.
Many hockey people believe the jump from junior to the AHL is bigger than going from the AHL to the NHL. And when it comes to the defensive side of the puck, Veleno is learning on the fly with the Griffins. But he did have eight points in 21 games, which, while not earth-shattering, is decent for a rookie pro on a team with a lot of young players learning the ropes.
Based on the summer showcase, getting back to playing junior-aged competition will be a great opportunity for Veleno, who has already proven he can dominate at that level. And Canada needs players like him and Lafreniere to deliver – not only because they are returnees, but also because the tournament requires it. “In this tournament, you need players who will step up,” said Team Canada head scout Brad McEwen. “Last year’s group played hard, but no one really stepped up.”
Though the pressure of performing on home ice has evaporated with the tournament being held in the Czech Republic instead of Vancouver, the expectations are still going to be sky-high for a Canadian side that is assumed to be one of the favorites every year. Luckily for Team Canada, they’ve got a leader in Veleno who has seen more than most junior players ever will – and with the chance for gold-medal redemption at the world juniors, he’s not done yet.