Steve Crowell, left, president and CEO of the Steele Subaru U18 Major Hockey Club, squats in his office before practice in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia on October 5, 2021.

DARREN CALABRESE / The Globe and Mail

The Dartmouth Steele Subaru Major Midgets dressing room has a wall of fame that could rival any minor hockey program in Canada, with names like Sidney Crosby, Brad Marchand and Cam Russell hanging over the players below.

They are among more than 20 players who skated for Dartmouth as a teenager on their way to an NHL career, and some of more than 50 alumni who have graduated from professional hockey. But sometimes head coach and general manager Steve Crowell wonders about those who have never had the chance to play on a bigger stage.

Before the QMJHL arrived in Atlantic Canada in the 1990s and 2000s, the East Coast was uncharted territory for most hockey scouts in Canada. Before midget Triple A teams such as Dartmouth, Cole Harbor or the Moncton Flyers became well-known pipelines for major junior hockey, the NHL and other professional leagues, players had to challenge the odds to get noticed.

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“It was just a totally untapped area,” said Crowell, a veteran coach who has been a part of Nova Scotia’s midget hockey scene since the 1980s. “So many great kids never had one. opportunities at the time. No one saw them.

Some players broke through, of course, with Nova Scotian NHL notables like Al MacInnis and Glen Murray, who signed pro contracts in the 1980s and early 1990s because they had rare luck in the game. OHL and that they have been exhibited in national teams. But unless you were an exceptional talent, it was difficult to gain attention outside the region.

Since then, the arrival of an army of QMJHL scouts and generational players like Crosby have drawn more attention than in the past to the rinks on the East Coast.

“It just exploded,” Crowell said. “It’s like night and day. There were no less than 20 Boy Scouts in the building for our season opening Sunday. We have 15-20 scouts in each of our matches now. “

Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins against the New York Islanders in Uniondale, NY on May 22.

Frank Franklin II / The Associated Press

Today, the Dartmouth alumni can be spotted across the NHL. Morgan Barron made his New York Rangers debut last season. Matthew Highmore, in his fourth season in the NHL, now skates with Vancouver. Former Dartmouth captain Luke Henman was the first player to sign with the Seattle Kraken. Defenseman Peter Diliberatore participated in the preseason with the Vegas Golden Knights.

Any prejudice that once existed against Maritimes players is long gone, said Bob LeBlanc, the QMJHL’s longtime Halifax Mooseheads scouting chief. Players who in the past would have been relegated to the lower rounds of the QMJHL draft because scouts had seen so little of them are now in the first round. Before there were Q teams in the Maritimes, language barriers also made some players reluctant to play in Quebec and some teams reluctant to sign them, which also limited their options.

“In the past, unless you were the best dog, you didn’t have this opportunity. There was no way to really show what you could do, ”said LeBlanc. “For a long time, the Quebec teams did not touch anyone in the Maritimes.

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For a time in the 1970s and 1980s, LeBlanc was one of the only scouts working in Atlantic Canada, following the Hull Olympiques players. Today, its network of scouts throng the stands with those of all the other major-junior teams in Quebec. It is common to have dozens of them at each showcase tournament in the region.

“At the beginning, it was open territory at the time. I had my choice of litter, ”said LeBlanc. “A lot of other Quebec teams saw that and said ‘Whoa, that’s not fair.’ I brought in the best kids in the Maritimes and we bet. So they started sending their scouts to the Maritimes to do what I was doing.

DARREN CALABRESE / The Globe and Mail

Above: Members of the Steele Subaru U18 Major Hockey Club prepare for practice as the names of current NHL superstars who have played for the Nova Scotia club hang on the locker room wall. Bottom: A signed photo of former NHL player and Steele Subaru U18 Major Hockey Club member Cam Russell hangs on the wall in the team’s locker room.

DARREN CALABRESE / The Globe and Mail

It helps that the six QMJHL teams now in Atlantic Canada have prioritized signing local players, giving them a draft chance that wasn’t there before. The Mooseheads aggressively pursued Nathan MacKinnon, as did Crosby, another Cole Harbor, NS native, and he thanked them by leading the team to their first Memorial Cup championship in 2013, before the Avalanche Colorado only uses its first choice to select it.

The players here no longer have the pressure to perform in a big tournament as scouts follow them throughout the season, LeBlanc said. The Mooseheads, the first QMJHL team to be established in Atlantic Canada in 1994 after leaving the AHL, has four dedicated scouts in the Maritimes, as well as four in Quebec and one in the United States.

“In the past, players here couldn’t even see Major Junior hockey games. They watched the NHL and thought it was a bit far-fetched, ”said LeBlanc. “Now they’re starting to want to be Sidney Crosby at a young age. They say, ‘Damn, if this guy from Cole Harbor can do it, why can’t I?’ This dream begins very early now.

As more and more NHL players move out of the region, more and more young players compete to be part of teams such as Dartmouth, seeing a path to a professional hockey career that did not exist. not before, LeBlanc said.

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“Now that’s an achievable target for them,” he said. “Now they see all these other players and they work a lot harder. They now train 12 months a year. The skill level increased with this.

Players who make midget Triple A rosters today see it as a clear stepping stone to bigger things, Crowell said. It brought a whole new level of professionalism to their approach, he said, with hockey-specific strength and conditioning programs and training that doesn’t take time off all year round.

“In the old days, kids used to come to training camp to get in shape. Now they all have personal trainers and they show up in great shape, ”he said. “You might have had five athletes doing this on your team in the past. Now they all do.


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