Brett Leason has never had much attention from Hockey Canada in his three years of major junior.
The 19-year-old forward wasn’t a member of Canada’s program at the under-17 or U18 levels, and he wasn’t invited to the Summer Showcase this past August, where the top Canadian players come together for their first real audition for the annual world junior squad.
He forced Hockey Canada to take notice, though, with his start to the 2018-19 season with his Prince Albert Raiders. And after a strong showing at the recent Canada-Russia Series, he’s now been rewarded with an invite to selection camp along with 33 other players ahead of the 2019 world junior championship that begins on Boxing Day.
“Feels really good, always been a dream to play for the country so I’m glad I have a chance to fight for that. I did not think it was realistic,” said the six-foot-four, 199-pound Leason.
All it took from the Calgary native to get some recognition was a league-best 27 goals and 60 points on his current 27-game point streak to lead the Western Hockey League in both categories.
“I think he was a real standout in the Russia series, really impressed with his ability to work the puck on the boards, get the puck into his teammates hands, and also his skating,” said Canada head coach Tim Hunter. “I watched him play last year and his skating has really improved in the summer and this season and it’s a big reason he’s a leading scorer in the CHL.”
Leason’s head coach with Prince Albert, Marc Habscheid, says he saw the undrafted right-handed centre making major strides in his game last season after being acquired in a trade with the Tri-City Americans.
“After the (trade) deadline last year you could tell he was right there, one of our better players at the end of last year and had a good playoff, he was right there,” said Habscheid. “Then he had a good summer, trained well. He’s found that level, confidence level and it’s gone real well for him.”
Added Leason: “I got passed over the past two (NHL) drafts so it kind of motivated me to be the best I can. I’m playing with lots of confidence and my coach is just letting me do my thing pretty much.”
The majority of Hockey Canada’s selections for camp come from the Canadian Hockey League, with 29 of the 34 named to camp currently playing in either the WHL, Ontario Hockey League or Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
Defencemen Ian Mitchell (Denver), Jacob Bernard-Docker (North Dakota) and Cameron Crotty (Boston University) and forward Shane Bowers (Boston University) are the lone Canadians playing outside the CHL to make the cut.
The Canadian squad will also have forward Gabriel Vilardi joining them at camp. His status was unknown after starting the year on the injured list with the L.A. Kings, but he has recovered and is currently on a conditioning assignment in the American Hockey League.
In total, the OHL leads selection camp with 14 invites. The QMJHL has eight and the WHL has seven.
“Right now the cycle is there’s a lot more skilled forwards in the OHL and we’re excited about that skill,” Hunter said about the camp’s makeup. “But like all players, they have to check the boxes on the style we want to play. They’re no different than anyone else, they need to be flexible in the environment.”
The battle in net will be between Michael DiPietro, Ian Scott and Matthew Villalta.
DiPietro, the front runner for the starting nod in goal, was a late cut from last year’s squad, although he gained some international experience this past summer at the men’s world championship, backing up NHLers Curtis McElhinney and Darcy Kuemper.
Canada will have a large group of new faces in the locker room with only two players returning to defend its gold medal from the 2018 world junior hockey championship.
Forwards Alex Formenton and Maxime Comtois, both 19, are the lone returnees.
Forwards Robert Thomas and Michael Rasmussen were hopefuls for the squad but haven’t been released by their NHL clubs. They still could, though it appears highly unlikely. Hunter says his focus is on the 34 players named to camp.
“Any time you can have returning players it benefits not only them but the group they’re with, sharing their past experiences and guiding them along,” said Hunter. “Right now we just have two and we’re not focusing on anyone else. We’re excited about Alex and Max leading the group and setting the tone at our camp.”
Forward Alexis Lafreniere is the youngest player invited at only 17. He isn’t eligible for the NHL draft until 2020.
Forward Jaret Anderson-Dolan has been invited, but is currently sidelined with an injury. He will be monitored and a decision on his roster spot will be determined ahead of the tournament.
Selection camp, which was announced in Calgary, will take place from Dec. 10 to Dec. 14 in Victoria and will be followed by three exhibition games against a group of U Sports all-stars. Hunter is expected to trim the final roster to 22 players by Dec. 15.
The Canadian team hits the ice on Dec. 26 for its world junior opener against Denmark in a Group A matchup at Rogers Arena in Vancouver. All Group B games will take place at Victoria’s Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre.
Selection camp roster
Goaltenders: Michael DiPietro, Ian Scott, Matthew Vilalta
Defencemen: Calen Addison, Nicolas Beaudin, Jacob Bernard-Docker, Evan Bouchard, Josh Brook, Cameron Crotty, Noah Dobson, Pierre-Olivier Jospeh, Jared McIsaac, Ian Mitchell, Markus Phillips, Ty Smith
Forwards: Jaret Anderson-Dolan, Shane Bowers, Maxime Comtois, Ty Dellandrea, MacKenzie Entwistle, Alex Formenton, Liam Foudy, Morgan Frost, Cody Glass, Barrett Hayton, Alexis Lafreniere, Raphael Lavoie, Brett Leason, Isaac Ratcliffe, Jack Studnicka, Nick Suzuki, Owen Tippett, Joe Veleno, Gabe Vilardi.