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
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
“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.”