By now, most hockey fans have heard about Joseph Veleno, the 15 year-old first overall pick in this year’s OHL Draft. The teenaged forward was selected by the St. John’s Sea Dogs of the QMJHL; not at all surprising considering he hails from Kirkland, Quebec. But how can a 15 year-old be playing in the OHL? By being granted something called, ‘Exceptional Player Status.’ If that phrase sounds exceptionally rare and honourable, it’s because it is, or rather, it should be. The age in which players are eligible to play Major Junior hockey in the CHL is 16 years-old. However, a player may be eligible to play one year earlier if it is deemed that their skill level, academics and maturity are advanced enough for the League; all of which is determined by interviews, personality tests, examining their support system and a written essay by the player applying.
Only four players have been granted Exceptional Player Status before Veleno; John Tavares (2005), Aaron Ekblad (2011), Connor McDavid (2012) and Sean Day (2013). The first three names are instantly recognizable to hockey fans while the last one, not so much. The general feel is that any player who is granted Exceptional Status has been a superstar in pee-wee, is a superstar in junior and will be a superstar in the NHL. While the rise of John Tavares as an NHL superstar lends validity to that point, it doesn’t necessarily mean success right away—or ever. Tavares was selected first overall by the Oshawa Generals in 2005 and went on to win the CHL’s Rookie of the Year in 2006, World Junior Gold with Team Canada and he broke Peter Lee’s OHL scoring record with 215 goals. He was the first overall pick in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft and is the face of the New York Islanders.
Aaron Ekblad was a force to be reckoned with in minor midget, leading the Sun County Panthers to an Alliance Championship and recording 34 points in 30 regular season games—as a defenceman. With the Barrie Colts, Ekblad was a leader on the blueline, finishing his OHL career with 116 points in 175 regular season games. Like Tavares, Ekblad was selected first overall in the NHL Entry Draft by the Florida Panthers in 2014. He finished the season with 39 points in 81 games and won the Calder Trophy at the NHL Awards this past June. So far, the first two players who were granted Exceptional Player Status in the CHL have lived up to the hype and the trend continues with Connor McDavid.
Hailed as the next everything, McDavid was selected first overall in 2012 by the Erie Otters of the OHL as an under-ager. However, it took McDavid about a season and a bit to reach superstar status in major junior. His first season in the league, he scored 66 points in 63 games—great numbers but nothing that would blow your mind. The 2013-2014 season saw his totals rise to 99 points in 53 games and finally finishing his last season of junior with 120(!) points in 47 games. He was taken first overall by the Edmonton Oilers this past June and McDavid Mania launched across North America. While the projections and expectations are high and the skill is evident, McDavid has yet to play an NHL game so it remains to be seen if he’ll have the success that Tavares and Ekblad have had thus far.
Sean Day. Who? He was granted Exceptional Player Status in 2013 and was taken fourth overall by the Mississauga Steelheads. Day is a defenceman who was born in Germany and played most of his midget hockey in the States, so not too much is known about him or what made the CHL deem him worthy of exceptional status. What we do know is that his OHL career thus far has been average at best with 16 points in 60 games in 2013-2014 and 36 points in 61 games this past season. Granted, he’s playing on a less-than-stellar team in Mississauga but it’s doubtful that he’ll be as impactful as the players mentioned before him and it’s equally doubtful he’ll be taken first overall in next year’s NHL Draft.
Finally we come to Joseph Veleno, a 6’ 170lbs 15 year-old who didn’t exactly light up the Quebec Midget AAA league last year but still managed to gain Exceptional Status. There’s been some debate as to the validity of his stats with the Lac St-Louis Lions, a team alleged to inflate players stats, and whether or not his skill level, academics and maturity are of the same ilk as Tavares, Ekblad and McDavid before him. The only way we’ll know for certain is once he plays in the ‘Q’ and how he performs. From where I’m sitting though, it looks as though the CHL is getting less stringent about what they consider ‘Exceptional.’