By Nicholas Carafa
Photos by Terry Wilson (above) and Aaron Bell (below) / OHL Images
The countdown to Christmas has reached its final week, and as anticipation for a visit from Santa Claus builds, so too does the excitement for another holiday tradition – the World Junior Hockey Championship.
Hockey Canada and the remaining hopefuls for the national junior team have already landed in Helsinki, Finland, where a showdown between Canada and the United States will highlight the opening slate of preliminary round games on Boxing Day.
With Canada needing to trim its roster from 27 to 22 before next Saturday, one thing is for sure – making the final cut is at the top of the wish list for Mitchell Stephens.
Flashback to the 2012-13 season when Stephens helped lead the Minor Midget AAA Toronto Marlboros to a Kraft Cup title and Scotiabank GTHL Playoffs championship. Although he managed to tally 44 goals and 84 points in 58 regular-season games, Stephens felt his play without the puck distinguished him from the rest of the 2013 OHL draft class.
“Ever since I started playing I’ve taken my defence seriously. I feel I have some good offensive talent too,” said Stephens in an interview with Yahoo! Sports after the Saginaw Spirit took him eighth overall that year.
Stephens, who played in Peterborough before joining the GTHL in the latter stages of his minor hockey career, has always taken pride in his versatility on the ice.
“Where I’ve come from, since we had fewer people [to draw from], we weren’t the skilled team so we relied more on the defensive aspect. It’s just the role I’ve always gone toward.”
An opportunity to wear the red and white would give Stephens the chance to show off what scouts say are his top skills – his lightning-quick speed and a quick release. That combination of speed and skill has helped Stephens – who missed a seven weeks with a broken foot – compile 7-4—11 in nine games with the Sting this season before leaving for Hockey Canada’s selection camp.
“Most teams understand that with me you’re getting what you’re getting,” Stephens told Ryan Kennedy of The Hockey News prior to the 2015 NHL Draft. “There are no surprises. I’m a hard competitor. I show that through my versatility and the two-way style I play.”
That versatility has paid dividends so far. The Tampa Bay Lightning nabbed Stephens in the second round (33rd overall) last June after he collected 48 points (22-26—48) in his sophomore OHL campaign.
An impressive showing at the Under-18 World Championship in Switzerland surely helped his stock in the NHL Draft. Wearing a ‘C’ on his chest, he helped Canada capture a bronze medal at the event, finishing second in team scoring with 5-5—10 in seven contests.
The Peterborough, Ont., native is no stranger to playing for Canada internationally. Appearances in the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge, Ivan Hlinka Memorial and the U-18 tournament have given Stephens a wealth of experience.
The third-year Spirit forward, who is proud to model his game after Nashville Predators forward Mike Fisher, is hoping to join fellow GTHL grads – and sure-locks for the team – Mitch Marner and Dylan Strome, his former Marlboros teammate on what is shaping up to be a highlt skilled Canadian roster.
It was announced Sunday that Vancouver Canucks forward Jake Virtanen, who won a gold medal with Canada at last year’s tournament in Toronto, will be loaned to the team as it look for consecutive first-place finishes for the first time since it won five straight gold medals from 2005-09.
Though two-way players don’t always get the glory, Canadian fans know that even the smallest moments can be game-changers in a tournament like the World Juniors.
Hey, even Rudolph needs help pulling Santa’s sleigh.
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