There have been five players granted exceptional status to play in the Canadian Hockey League since 2005. Two of them go head-to-head in Windsor tonight to kick-off the 2017 Mastercard Memorial Cup.
New York Rangers prospect Sean Day leads the Spitfires into their first game in six weeks before an enthusiastic Windsor crowd at the WFCU Centre.
Across the ice, 16-year-old sophomore Joe Veleno and the QMJHL Champion Saint John Sea Dogs await.
“It’s exciting,” said Day of the opportunity. “Playing in the Memorial Cup is something a lot of guys don’t get to do, so I feel fortunate to have this opportunity to play in front of our great fans.
“I don’t think me against Joe is a big story,” Day said of the situation, “but it is pretty cool that we’re both getting to play against each other.”
The two standouts follow in the footsteps of John Tavares (Oshawa Generals, 2005), Aaron Ekblad (Barrie Colts, 2011) and Connor McDavid (Erie Otters, 2012) to be granted exceptional status and begin their CHL careers at the age of 15.
The ‘exceptional’ label carries with it certain expectations.
“You’re definitely critiqued more,” said Day, who was acquired by the Spitfires from the Mississauga Steelheads early in the season. “Ultimately I’m pretty happy with my play this season and I’ve received a lot of positive feedback from the Rangers.
“My conditioning levels are the best they’ve ever been,” he continued. “I think that’s helped the mental side of my game and enabled me to be in the right places on the ice a little bit faster.”
Day finished the season with 15 goals, 22 assists and 37 points in 63 games, saving arguably his best performance for a big stage at Joe Louis Arena on December 4th where his overtime game winner capped off a hat-trick against the Saginaw Spirit.
Two years his junior, Veleno says the support systems in place in Saint John have helped him transition to life in the QMJHL.
“When you move away from home at 15 and you’re playing against guys four of five years older than you that gets pretty tough,” he admitted. “I’ve had a lot of help from a great organization and great teammates though and I wouldn’t be able to do this without them.”
Veleno, who lives with Sea Dogs captain Spencer Smallman throughout the season, credits the Carolina Hurricanes prospect for taking him under his wing.
“Spencer takes pretty good care of me,” he said with a laugh. “It’s nice to know that you don’t have to go through it alone. He was the first guy to reach out to me on draft day and even though he is four years older than me we have become really good friends.”
Veleno recorded just under a point-per-game with Saint John this past season, scoring 13 times while adding 27 assists for 40 points in 45 games. He followed that up with 11 points (8-3–11) in 18 playoff matchups.
“There’s nothing like it,” said Veleno of the Mastercard Memorial Cup opportunity. “We’ve come a long way together and we want to keep playing our game against Windsor.”
Catch Day and Veleno on the same ice surface tonight when the puck drops at 7:00pm as the 99th Mastercard Memorial Cup gets underway on Sportsnet and TVA Sports.