OTTAWA – When Pat Quinn called Ryan Ellis last spring to tell the young defenceman he was on Canada’s under-18 going to the world championship, Ellis didn’t believe it was Quinn on the phone.
“He said he was Pat Quinn and I thought somebody was pulling a prank on me,” Ellis recalled. “I sat there for a second and was like ‘Are you kidding?’ I definitely had to pinch myself.”
Ellis has Quinn as his coach for the second time in less than a calendar year. The 17-year-old Windsor Spitfires defenceman was named to Canada’s under 20-team for the world junior hockey championship in Ottawa.
It’s heady stuff for a kid who grew up in Freelton, Ont., just up the road from Quinn’s hometown of Hamilton.
Ellis spent years seven to 15 watching Quinn behind the Toronto Maple Leafs bench and he’s still trying to get his head around the fact the iconic coach is out on the ice with him.
“I grew up watching Leafs TV so I was all over that, seeing him chewing gum all the time,” Ellis said. “You might meet him and have a photo with him here and there, but to be coached by him and he actually knows who you are and stuff like that, it’s surreal.
“Just to be coached by someone like him is an honour and kind of puts everything into perspective how unreal this is getting and how it’s getting better and better each time.”
Ellis showed his face almost exclusively on the power play at the world under-18 championship in Kazan, Russia. But he tied for the lead in scoring by defencemen with three goals and four assists in seven games.
Quinn thought so highly of Ellis’s performance he’s kept him on the junior team to perform the same role in Ottawa. Going with eight defenceman instead of seven meant Quinn had to sacrifice a 13th forward, but he felt Ellis’s talent was worth it.
“It changed my opinion on how we should work the numbers,” Quinn said. “He’s a special guy on the power play.
“He’s a great passer, he can shoot the puck. While I always believe it was a team effort, that gold medal in Russia, three or four players had a lot to do with winning that thing. We scored power-play goals that won close hockey games and he ran that power play over there.
“I hope he can take the next step. It’s going to be tougher. It’s going to be better players that he’ll be playing against, but we believe he’s special in that situation.”
Ellis had a goal and five assists in three pre-tournament exhibition games for the Canadian juniors. Four of those assists came with a man advantage.
He was the only 17-year-old on the Canadian junior team until the late substitution of forward Evander Kane for injured Dana Tyrell.
Ellis won’t be 17 much longer _ he’ll celebrate his 18th birthday on Jan. 3 during the world junior tournament.
He can’t ditch the full face cage the International Ice Hockey Federation requires underage players to wear that day, however. He’s eligible to play for Canada again at the next world under-18 championships and all players that age are must wear full cages in international tournaments.
The five-foot-nine, 176-pound Ellis leads all Canadian Hockey League defencemen in scoring with 15 goals and 33 assists in 30 games.
Central Scouting ranks him seventh in the Ontario Hockey League among prospects for the 2009 NHL draft. As the first 17-year-old defenceman to play for the Canadian junior team since Jay Bouwmeester in 2001, his draft stock can only go up.
“He’s one of the best, if not the best, offensive defenceman in all of junior hockey despite his age,” Hockey Canada head scout Al Murray said. “He sees the ice so well. He has a very high panic point. Players come right on him and he just shields the puck and moves it to the appropriate guy.”
So Ellis will bide his time on Canada’s bench at the world junior championship hoping the opposing countries get into penalty trouble.
“Whenever they get penalties I’m going to be happy for sure, but as long as the team is winning that’s all that really matters and the drive to another gold is the main thing,” he said.
“Being that eighth guy may suck at times, but to be that special guy that they wanted to make the 12 to 13 switch for, I’m happy with my role and it’s a role I’ve done often and hopefully I’ll do for many more years. It’s exciting.”