The Canadian Hockey League started the CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game in 1996 at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto.
The event was born out of a desire to see NHL Draft-eligible players compete against one another to give NHL clubs another evaluation tool and its participants a more unique opportunity that was different than regular club competition.
Since its inception, fourteen different players have participated and later gone on to be selected first overall in the NHL Draft. Of that group, 11 are still active NHL stars including Nico Hischier, Connor McDavid, Aaron Ekblad, Nathan MacKinnon, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Taylor Hall, John Tavares, Steven Stamkos, Patrick Kane, Marc-Andre Fleury, and Joe Thornton. If not for an injury during the 2005 season that kept him from competing, superstar Sidney Crosby would make the list a dozen.
Overall, there have been 343 players selected in the first round of the NHL Draft.
As a result of the team concept and the tendency for the consensus top two prospects to captain their respective squad, the CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game occasionally has an underlying theme that relates directly to the upcoming NHL Draft that follows about six months later.
This trend started as early as 1997 when Thornton, a star for the Soo Greyhounds, captained Team Cherry opposite his current San Jose Sharks teammate Patrick Marleau of the Seattle Thunderbirds who wore the ‘C’ for Team Orr. The pair would later be the first two picks at the draft in Pittsburgh.
It happened again in 1998 when soon-to-be first overall pick Vincent Lecavalier of the Rimouski Oceanic went head-to-head against the year’s second overall selection David Legwand of the Plymouth Whalers.
Fast forward to 2002 and captains Rick Nash from the London Knights and Jay Bouwmeester of the Medicine Hat Tigers were picks one and three respectively.
A decade ago it was Hall representing the Spitfires opposite Tyler Seguin of the Whalers in a highly anticipated battle for first overall, then Ekblad of the Barrie Colts edged Sam Reinhart of the Kootenay ICE for that distinction in 2014, and just three years ago when Halifax’s Hischier duelled Nolan Patrick of the Brandon Wheat Kings in Quebec City and down the wire to the 2017 NHL Draft stage in Chicago.
Those two examples are like the presence this year of Alexis Lafreniere (Rimouski Oceanic) and Quinton Byfield (Sudbury Wolves), who are the consensus No. 1 and 2 prospects for the upcoming NHL Draft.
Both Lafreniere and Byfield recently won World Junior gold together in the Czech Republic but will oppose each other in Hamilton.
In 24 years the showcase has seen its share of great single game performances beginning with Daniel Briere of the Drummondville Voltigeurs and his four assist showing in the inaugural game which stood as an event record until 2018 when equalled by Knights defenceman Evan Bouchard.
To this day only Gilbert Brule of the Vancouver Giants has scored a hat-trick, a feat accomplished on home ice back in 2005, while Stamkos’ ‘Gordie Howe hat-trick’ in 2008 while representing the Sarnia Sting still stands as one of the game’s most memorable moments.
Look back at 2012 and 2013 Players of the Game and you’ll see current Pittsburgh Penguins goaltenders Matt Murray (Soo Greyhounds) and Tristan Jarry (Edmonton Oil Kings).
The buzz around the 2013 event in Halifax might be the game’s greatest when Seth Jones of the Portland Winterhawks, who had been listed as the year’s top prospect just days before, spoiled the home party defeating a team loaded with Mooseheads MacKinnon, Jonathan Drouin, and Zach Fucale.
And then there’s Pierre-Luc Dubois, the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles star, who had a hand in all three Team Orr goals in Vancouver in 2016. He would go on to be the CHL’s top pick in the draft at third overall stands as and one of the best recent examples of an event participant to bolster his draft stock with a good performance.
The past two years have seen dramatic goal surges for winning teams.
In 2018 in Guelph, Ty Dellandrea (Flint Firebirds) scored twice and Aidan Dudas (Owen Sound Attack) once in a 1:07 event record span to key the 7-4 victory for Team Cherry. Both Dellandrea and Dudas recently teamed up again to help Canada win gold at World Juniors.
Last year, the Knights’ Connor McMichael, another Team Canada player to recently win gold, scored the winning goal with 2:49 remaining to complete the biggest comeback in the history of the CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game with a 5-4 victory in Red Deer. Down 4-1 with 4:42 remaining, goals by Jakob Pelletier (Moncton Wildcats) and defenceman Nikita Okhotyuk (Ottawa 67’s) pulled Team Orr to within one. Brett Leason (Prince Albert Raiders) tied it less than a minute later, which set the stage for McMichael’s winner.
The 2020 edition in Hamilton will complete a quarter century of Top Prospects competition, and if history is any indication the next chapter will be another exciting addition to the story.
Written with files by Peter Robinson