Things simply don’t happen as naturally as they should when you stand eight inches taller than the average kid your age. Add on top of that playing with a brand new team and being pinned up against the top 2001-born kids from around the hockey the world. But for Calgary Hitmen defender Jackson van de Leest, he turned what should have been a rough adjustment period into a smooth transition and has the hardware to prove it.
Van de Leest was one of the 111 kids selected to participate in the U17 Hockey Canada Developmental camps back in July at the WinSport Arena. There, he spent the week practising, competing and bonding with Team White. When the 6-foot-6 defencemen showed up to for the World U-17 Hockey Challenge pre-tourney camp, he was switched to Team Canada Red.
“I really had no knowledge of anyone or the coaching staff on the team. I knew a couple of the players from the Western League, but nothing too serious,” said van de Leest. “It’s always difficult joining a new team for a big tournament like that, so I just did my best to get to know the coaches and I tried my best to prove myself to my new teammates.”
Players arrived in northern B.C. Oct. 31 for four days of practices and an exhibition game, as they hoped the gel holding their roster together dried as quickly as possible.
In their pre-tourney debut, Canada Red got cracked 9-1 by the Americans Nov. 2 at the Encana Events Centre in Dawson Creek.
“We talked as a team about just trying to get better, better and better each day and that’s exactly what happened. The result in the exhibition game wasn’t what we wanted, but we got better the next day at practice and focused on what we needed to do to be better and went from there,” said Canada Red Assistant Coach B.J. Adams, who has been an assistant coach with the Erie Otters of the Ontario Hockey League as an assistant coach for three years.
“I think it was quite noticeable to see the difference between our team and a team like the States, who have been practising together for a few months now,” said van de Leest.
Red’s play improved only slightly once the game started to count for real. Canada opened with a 4-2 loss to Team Finland Nov. 5 at North Peace Arena in Fort St. John.
“After the Finland game, he gave himself a pretty tough self-analysis, thinking he didn’t compete hard enough. From there, he competed much harder the remainder of the tournament,” said Adams.
The Kelowna product was never going to be leaned on in a goal-scoring role, but to be rock solid in his own end. In 22 career games over two seasons with the Hitmen thus far, van de Leest has one goal and two assists. In the six games with Canada Red, van de Leest was held off the score sheet.
With a clear and refocused mind, van de Leest helped Canada thump the defending champions Team Sweden 7-2 the following day.
In their final round robin game, Canada Red would host the Russians Nov. 7, as they jockeyed for position near the top of their division.
It was interesting to see how the millennials responded to a Canada-Russia matchup.
The 2001-born class are generations removed from watching the Summit Series, let alone learning about it and seeing highlights of Paul Henderson’s iconic goal on loop. Recently, and for the majority of their lives, the majority of the intriguing, thrilling international hockey games — whether it be at the World Juniors, World Cup or Olympics — have occurred against the border rivals to the south.
While they might not know about Paul Coffey and Mike Bossy teaming up against the Soviets in overtime during the semifinal in the 1984 Canada Cup — a game played at van de Leest’s new home, the then Olympic Saddledome — it didn’t take long for van de Leest’s team to familiarize themselves with what most people still consider this nations greatest hockey rival.
“There were some extracurricular activities during warm-ups that led me to believe it was going to be a big game,” said van de Leest.
The players were stretching beneath the stands at North Peace Arena, when a few players started harmlessly jawing back-and-forth. Then on the ice for the pregame skate, a pair of Russia players crossed the red line and stole a couple of Canadian pucks.
That didn’t sit well with the Canadians.
“It was a crazy game. We were all jacked up to play these guys and it was a little bit of a smaller rink, so the crowd packed the place and created a great atmosphere,” said van de Leest. “I remember there was a sequence where (Red goaltender) Tommy Da Silva (Cape Breton Screaming Eagles, QMJHL) made three or four ridiculous saves on one shift. The place was going crazy and the bench was going nuts. I had chills running down my spine.”
Unfortunately for van de Leest, his first taste of the rivalry didn’t end the way he anticipated, as the Russians slid past Canada Red 5-3.
Even with the 1-2 round robin record, the Canadians still advanced to the quarterfinals, where they met Team Canada Black.
“We didn’t know much about him, having not worked with him over the summer. What we found out, for him, his competitiveness allowed him to have success. He was always trying to be hard on guys, wear them down with his physicality, blocked shots and kept his game as simple as possible,” said Adams, who was also experiencing his first tournament with Hockey Canada.
The persistence in the Canadian dressing room paid off, as the unit came together in the elimination round.
Red scored a pair in the first and a pair in the third to clip Canada Black 4-3 Nov. 9 at the Encana Events Centre.
In the semis, Canada Red squeaked out another tight one, as they edged the Czech Republic 3-2 Nov. 10, to set up a date with the Americans in the finals nine days after having their doors blown off in a pre-tourney game.
In a game that was streamed on TSN.ca, the Canadians looked destined for blowoutsville once again, after yielding four goals in the opening frame.
Like they did all week, the Canadians made some adjustments during the intermission and carried the play in the remaining two periods, outscoring the Americans 4-2, but it wasn’t enough to complete the epic comeback, as they fell 6-4 in the end.
“There were quite a few guys on the team that came down with the flu over the course of the tournament. In the finals, they were without Justin Barron (Halifax Mooseheads 2017 13th overall pick), so they were forced to roll with only six defencemen. It took them a while to get going, but they really shut the Americans down in the second half and nearly came back to force overtime,” said Hockey Canada Head Scout Brad McEwen.
Even rejoining the Hitmen on their current five-game road trip with the wrong colour medal, which he plans on displaying at his parents house in Kelowna during the summer, van de Leest was able to take a lot away from his first international hockey experience.
“It was really cool to see the guys we were going up against. It really broadens your eyes to how many good players are around the world and how much harder you need to work when facing that kind of talent,” said van de Leest.
“He’s a big rig and he has to move his feet to stay in front of guys. It’s still a work in progress, but there are lots of things to like about his game and he did a good job adjusting, using his length and being efficient on the ice,” said McEwen.
Rolling with seven blue liners, van de Leest wasn’t really paired up with one defencemen in particular for the duration of the tournament. He constantly had to adjust and learn the habits of other defencemen from across the country.
“I think this was another chance for Jackson to grow as a player. As one of the younger players, there are going to be ups and downs. Now that he has experience against the top players his age from around the world, he has an idea of the level of hockey that is out there and that he is capable of being out there. That should certainly give him confidence coming back to the team,” said Hitmen Assistant Head Coach Trent Cassan.
The silver medal was the first for Canada Red in the tournament’s history. Up until a few years ago, Canada used to divide the nation into regions for the tournament. Now, they limit it to three teams.
Van de Leest became the 27th member of the Hitmen to participate in the U17 tourney, joining the likes of Beck Malenstyn (2014), Jake Bean (2014) and Tristen Nielsen (2016), most recently.
Now that van de Leest has returned to the Hitmen, Cassan and the rest of the coaching staff are excited to watch the young man make adjustments this season, drawing from the experience he picked up with his first tour with Hockey Canada.