OSHAWA, Ont. – The Home Hardware CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game is a chance for draft-eligible players to make an impression and Zack Kassian did just that by crushing junior hockey star John Tavares.
The Peterborough Petes forward sent the leading candidate to go first overall in this summer’s NHL draft to the dressing room early Wednesday night with a shoulder injury after a punishing hit midway through the third period.
Bobby Orr, Tavares’ coach in the showcase event, didn’t have specifics on the injury but said “his shoulder is sore but he has good motion so that’s good news.”
Either way Kassian left the crowd of 5,510 at General Motors Centre – where Tavares starred for the Oshawa Generals the past 3 1-2 years before his trade to the London Knights last week – gasping.
“You play this game to be remembered and I think it would be, a No. 1 overall pick gets hurt in the prospect game so I think it should get a lot of media,” Kassian said of the hit after his Team Cherry was drubbed by Tavares’ Team Orr 6-1. “It’s good for me, obviously, getting my name out there.
“(The attention) doesn’t bother me at all.”
The six-foot-three, 212-pound Kassian caught Tavares, six-feet, 200, behind the net and sent him flying into the boards. Tavares rolled around before getting up, whipped his stick against the ice as he skated off favouring his right shoulder and didn’t return.
He skipped the on-ice post-game ceremonies and didn’t speak to media afterwards.
“I saw him cut to the middle behind the net after he had a pass, he had his head down so I did what any normal player would do and threw my hit,” said Kassian. “The bad thing was he got hurt but that’s hockey and we have to go forward.”
Taylor Doherty of the Kingston Frontenacs also took a run at the MVP of the World Junior Hockey Championship earlier in the third, as the 6-foot-8 defenceman drilled Tavares into the boards from behind. The two also traded blows at the end of the first.
The early end to his night underlined some of the risks players of his ilk face in a game like this, but both Orr and Don Cherry said he wasn’t being targeted by opponents trying to make a name for themselves.
“He’s carrying the puck a lot and when you carry the puck a lot you’re going to get hit,” said Cherry. “It’s that simple. Bobby used to carry the puck a lot and he got hit, it was nothing against him.”
Added Orr: “I don’t think John was a target. He kind of got crushed on the check he was injured on and as Don says, when you handle the puck in this game you’re going to get hit.”
The injury to Tavares took the focus away from Team Orr player of the game Cody Eakin of the Swift Current Broncos, who scored twice and was sandpaper all night.
David Gilbert of the Quebec Remparts also scored twice, Tavares collected an assist while Taylor Beck of the Guelph Storm and Levko Koper of the Spokane Chiefs added singles in the 14th annual competition for draft-eligible players in the Canadian junior ranks.
Andrej Nestrasil of the Victoriaville Tigres replied for Team Cherry, as the 40 participants did their best to impress the host of scouts and executives evaluating their every move.
“It’s obviously nerve-wracking having every general manager and scout from every team here,” said Kassian. “You have to put that in the back of your mind as much as possible and just go play your game.”
To that end, players sometimes looked hit first, puck second and anyone with their head down paid a heavy price. There were several scrums after whistles.
“They want to show you can bring a physical aspect,” said Eakin.
Cape Breton Screaming Eagles netminder Olivier Roy allowed one goal on 18 shots in his half while Scott Stajcer of the Owen Sound Attack made 25 saves after entering the game at 11:01 of the second.
Nathan Lieuwen of the Kootenay Ice had a long night in goal for Team Cherry, allowing five goals on 18 shots. Saginaw Spirit netminder Edward Pasquale, the top draft-eligible North American goalie according to the NHL Central Scouting Bureau’s mid-season rankings, was strong in relief, stopping 20 of 21 shots to earn player of the game honours for his team.
“I thought it was going to be a relaxed game but everyone was pretty intense,” said Pasquale. “There were a lot of good players out there so you had to be on your game tonight.”
Cherry, clad in a gaudy plaid blazer visible from every seat in the rink, received a loud ovation from the crowd while Orr, who starred for the Generals years ago and whose No. 2 hangs in the building’s rafters, was given a standing ovation.
Similar treatment was given to Tavares, the top-ranked skater in North America who gave the crowd one reminder of his deft touch by sliding a lovely cross-ice pass to Eakin on a 2-on-1 midway through the second to put Team Orr up 5-1.
Earlier in the second, Gilbert put Team Cherry up 4-1 when he stole the puck from Lieuwen who had played a dump in and scored on a wraparound at 5:46.
Team Orr, after a slow start, took a 3-1 lead into the second period despite not managing its first shot until 12:30 of the first.
Eakin opened the scoring with a nifty effort, dancing in to fire a shot high over Lieuwen’s glove at 15:55. Beck made it 2-0 at 18:21 when he made a move in front and while falling swiped the puck through Lieuwen.
Koper made it 3-0 just 43 seconds later, when he took a feed from behind the net by Ryan O’Reilly of the Erie Otters and fired it into an empty goal.
Nestrasil got Team Cherry on the board with 31 seconds left, firing the puck home off a scramble in front.
Notes: Seven players to appear in the game have gone on to be selected first overall, most recently Steven Stamkos by Tampa Bay last year. Tavares hopes to make it eight this summer. … The rosters featured 16 players from the OHL, 14 from the WHL and 10 from the QMJHL. … Twenty players from the 2008 game were chosen in the first round of the NHL draft with eight playing in at least one NHL game this season. Five remain in the NHL, Stamkos, Drew Doughty, Zach Bogosian, Alex Pietrangelo and Luke Schenn.