Joe Veleno has gone where no Canadian hockey player has ever gone before.
Not that breaking new ground is anything out of the ordinary for the 17-year-old; Veleno has spent the last few seasons carving his own path through the game, joining elite clubs and starting a few new ones of his own.
Where to begin?
In 2015, Veleno was one of only a handful of under-age players to take the ice at the 2015 Canada Winter Games, posting 10 points in six games to finish in the top 10 of tournament scoring.
That performance helped him become the first player ever to earn exceptional status for the QMJHL Entry Draft, where he was taken No. 1 overall by the Saint John Sea Dogs.
He followed that up by earning an invite to Canada’s national under-17 development camp that summer, and was the first (and still only) under-ager to be chosen to represent his country at the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge under the new national team format.
After his rookie season in Saint John, Veleno was invited to Canada’s National Men’s Summer Under-18 Team selection camp (just the sixth 16-year-old to do so), and became only the second under-ager to make the team, joining Sidney Crosby.
Now, after a season in which he helped the Sea Dogs win the QMJHL championship and reach the Memorial Cup semifinal, Veleno is back with Team Canada – the first player to ever wear red and white twice at the annual summer U18 tournament.
“It means a lot,” Veleno says of the chance to come back. “I am grateful and honoured to have that opportunity. Obviously last year’s finish wasn’t the finish we wanted, and I’m glad I get a second opportunity at it.”
Oh ya, last year. It wouldn’t be much of a surprise if the Kirkland, Que., native wanted to forget the 2016 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Cup; Canada finished fifth, its worst result in 26 years of summer U18 competition.
Instead, Veleno – who is wearing the ‘C’ this year – is using the finish as motivation.
“I want to take some of the negative from last year’s tournament and turn it into a positive,” he says. “Obviously there were some lessons learned, and I’m going to let the boys know, guide them through each game, and I think everything is going to be fine.”
As Veleno is quick to point out, it’s not as if he’s leading a team of international rookies into battle. The Canadian roster includes 20 players who participated in the 2016 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge, six from the 2017 IIHF U18 World Championship and 11 who won silver at the 2016 Winter Youth Olympic Games.
“They know in a short tournament that you have to perform every game and you can’t take any time off, so it’s nothing really new,” Veleno says. “We have a good leadership here, all 22 guys are leaders, and everyone is going to have their own leadership quality in their own way, so I’m not too worried about that.”
Veleno picked up a little added experience last season on the Sea Dogs’ run to the Memorial Cup, contributing 11 points in 18 QMJHL playoff games and four in as many games at the national championship.
And although he had just 64 days between the semifinal loss to the Erie Otters and the start of selection camp in Calgary, there was no question Veleno was going to be ready when Team Canada called.
“I took two weeks off after the Memorial Cup,” he says, “and after that I made sure to get back in shape, start lifting weights again to increase my body weight and get stronger a little bit so I’d be ready for this tournament, and for the next season to start.
Before the QMJHL season starts, though, there is a little bit of unfinished business. For all he has done nationally and internationally, Veleno has never won a medal – in addition to the fifth-place finish last year at the Hlinka Memorial, Quebec ended up fourth at the 2015 Canada Winter Games and Canada Black was eighth at the 2015 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge.
So the focus for this summer is pretty simple.
“Like any kid’s dream, you want to wear the Maple Leaf on your chest, and I’m grateful for that second opportunity,” he says. “I want to win a gold medal; it’s way better than finishing fifth place, so I want to win a gold medal with this group.”
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