Being selected in the NHL Draft would be a dream come true for any hockey player, and going in the first round surely would make the “pinch me” moment even more surreal. Playing at the World Junior Championship is also high on the list of goals for any young Canadian hockey player.
Michael McLeod has already made the first dream a reality – he was the first GTHL alumnus selected in the 2016 draft, going 12th overall to the New Jersey Devils in June – and is well on his way to checking off the second achievement from his to-do list.
Earning a spot on Canada’s roster for this year’s World Junior Championship (in Montreal and Toronto from Dec. 26 – Jan. 5) would serve as a huge confidence boost as he sets his sights on a future with the Devils.
“It’s CHL players playing at an NHL pace, so it’s a fast tournament,” said McLeod after the first day of Hockey Canada’s under-20 development camp in July.
“I was talking to [Arizona Coyotes prospect] Dylan Strome and he was saying it was as fast as the NHL pre-season action he was a part of last year.”
While McLeod didn’t receive an invite to last year’s World Junior training session, he is no stranger to wearing the maple leaf in international competition, having represented Canada at the under-17 and under-18 tournaments in 2015 and 2016, respectively. He also was part of the country’s gold medal-winning entry at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial last August.
“It has helped me understand how things work,” McLeod said of his experience with the Canadian team. “You have to be on time, be a good person and be respectful. There are a lot of high expectations for everyone.
In addition to familiarity, the pressure of international tournaments is also eased with the comfort of reuniting with fellow GTHL alumni, like Strome and former Toronto Jr. Canadiens defenseman Jakob Chychrun.
“Everyone pretty much knows everyone,” McLeod said. “Since we started back in the U17s, it’s a lot easier when you come to the rink to see a lot of your friends, whether it’s guys from out west or the U18 experience.”
Chychrun, who joins Strome in the Coyotes system after being selected 16th overall in June, has been alongside McLeod in Hockey Canada’s Program of Excellence since they both played their final minor hockey games at Scotiabank Pond in 2014.
“Every year you play for Canada as you get older, it becomes more and more important, especially the U20 tournament (because it’s) something Canada has always had pride in,” Chychrun said.
“It’s obviously magnified a lot more than the under-18s and you have to treat it with that much more passion while having that much more readiness.”
Chychrun credits the Toronto Marlboros alumnus for his speed, quickness and competitive spirit, and offered some words of advice for his former GTHL rival.
“He has to play his game and relax,” said Chychrun, who attended the camp in 2015 but was a late cut from Canada’s squad last December. “That’s one thing I’d take out of my first camp: focus on what you bring to the table.”
McLeod knows the puck is on his stick, so to speak.
“You have to have confidence in yourself and I’m feeling pretty confident with the work I’ve put in this summer. I think I’ve taken some big steps.”
“There are so many good players here so it’s kind of overwhelming at times,” added McLeod. “It’s cool to be playing with and watching these guys at the same time.”
The focus for McLeod, 18, now shifts to impressing Canadian management in the early stages of his third season with his hometown Mississauga Steelheads of the OHL.
If he does that, McLeod will fulfill yet another childhood dream, just down the road from where it all began.