Grand Falls-Windsor, NL – Products of the Grand Falls-Windsor Minor Hockey Association will be representing Newfoundland and Labrador at the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League Excellence Challenge April 26-29.
Sixteen-year-old Brandon Casey, a 6-foot, 170-lb defenceman who played this season with the Newbridge Academy, was selected to the Hockey NL 2018 Male Under 16 team. His uncle, Brian Casey, will be leading the team as head coach.
Brandon started hockey at the age of three with the Grand Falls-Windsor Minor Hockey Association and played right up through until midget this season.
“I moved away for better exposure,” Brandon said, adding this is the first time he’s played and lived away from home. “I like it up here. School is good, hockey is really good, too.”
Team NL U16 is something Brandon has been working toward all year.
“I got cut from it last year and I really wanted to make it this year because it’s a big year with the Gatorade Challenge Cup so I had to work hard for it,” he said.
Brandon faced an injury in his last tournament so he is working hard now to get back in shape and ready to showcase his abilities.
“This is a big tournament, I can’t wait to get up there and start at it,” he said.
The QMJHL Excellence Challenge will be viewed by QMJHL scouts as a signature event leading up to the 2018 draft and Brandon is hoping to prove a point.
“And show people that I can play the game and hopefully get drafted at the end of the year,” he said.
Hockey Canada scouting staff will also be on site to scout players for the National U17 summer camp, in which 108 players are invited to a summer camp in Calgary. From the summer camp 66 players will be selected to form three National teams that will compete at the World Under 17 Challenge in fall 2018.
“It would be an honour to get to go there,” Brandon said. “That would be amazing.”
Brandon said he’s happy his uncle, along with other coaching staff, will be leading the way for the Newfoundland and Labrador team.
“He coached against me this year with Kings Edgehill,” Brandon said. “He’s a good coach. He knows a lot about the game so it’s good to have him there.”
Brian said the family dynamic was a tough situation, and he tried to remove himself from conversation when his nephew came up.
“I personally think with all that aside he’s a high-end defenceman, he’s a very good player,” Brian said. “From a reality perspective he deserves to be on that team. Still there’s family involved so you can only say so much, but all our staff is a big fan of him. They think he’s a good player and he’s going to be a key player for us in this tournament.”
This will be the first time he will be coaching his nephew.
“I’ve always been in his corner and he’s a defenceman, the position that I played for a lot of years, so I probably can be a supporter for him in many ways but he’s a mature young fellow, he’s a good kid, he’s extremely coachable and he’s going to do very well for himself,” Brian said.
The coach added there will be a bit of distance between them on the bench because Brian is going to be up with the forwards and the assistant coach will be back with the defence.
“But I will keep an eye on him like everyone else,” Brian said. “That I’m the coach and he’s a player, I think that’s an exciting time for our family.”
Brian grew up in Grand Falls-Windsor where he played all his minor and high school hockey.
He went on to play at the university level and then professionally in Europe for 11 years.
“It all started home,” Brian said. “I’m proud to be from Grand Falls-Windsor. I love the town, love the community and I love the people there.”
When he retired from Europe he returned home and coached the Senior Cataracts for two years, and won the Herder with the team in 2011.
He just completed his first season coaching an under 16 prep school hockey team at Kings Edgehill, where he is also teaching Grade 10 math, and he is now focusing on, and looking forward to, the excellence Challenge with Team NL.
The head coach position of Team NL U16 was done through an application process and he was fortunate enough to be selected to coach the team, he said.
He’s been coaching since he stopped playing in 2009.
“It’s a passion that I have,” Brian said. “I love teaching hockey and I love developing players and I love encouraging kids and giving them the confidence they need to have success. It’s worked out good at this point and now I have the opportunity to coach Team NL, which I’ve never had before. It’s home for me, it’s my province where I’m from so it’s that much more special.”
The selection process started last April with an invitational camp where coaching staff reduced the roster to 30. Just last weekend they all met in St. John’s where, after tough decisions, the roster was reduced again to 20 – 18 skaters and two goaltenders.
“I was proud of every one of them and the quality of players and the level they were at but there is only room for so many and we feel confident in the players we did select,” Brian said.
The coach said he’s extremely overwhelmed with how mature and how committed the players are.
He said a lot of the players competed against each other this year in major midget or their prep schools. He has reached out to all of them to offer congratulations, and also tell them the importance of coming together to play for this tournament.
“We have to find a way to become one family and we have to bond very quickly,” he said. “These tournaments come and go pretty quick so I think our closeness and our trust is extremely important, and I think we have the quality of kids who have the personality to be that way so this is kind of the process we are leading up to.
He said fortunately they’ll get into Montreal three days before the tournament starts to give themselves preparation in practices, team play, and get comfortable in the environment where they are competing.
The players will also take place in a combine—an on- and off-ice skills development and assessment process—done through the QMJHL.
“All these kids now are draft eligible for the Quebec major junior league this year so it’s an important tournament for sure,” Brian said. “The Quebec major league would have a lot of these kids on their scouting list so it’s an opportunity for them to see where they’re at in respect to their off-ice strength and conditioning. The kids will go through some test one of the days prior to the tournament and that will be important information to be documented and give these individuals some feedback on where the kids are in respect to their strength.”
The Excellence Challenge features six teams - Hockey Newfoundland and Labrador, Hockey Nova Scotia, Hockey New Brunswick, Hockey Prince Edward Island, Quebec Blue and Quebec White.
Brian said he likes the look of Team NL, however, when it comes to outlook, you never know with a tournament like this one, which is basically one-game showdowns with teams they’ve never really seen.
“For us, we are focused on our group and making sure we get the most out of everyone and I’m confident in our team,” Brian said. “I think it’s a really solid team we put together. It’s our responsibility as staff to keep these kids in check, keep them calm, and not get too caught up in the spotlight. Just go out and be yourself and play with the ability that you can get to. I think if we can do that, stay together as a team and rely (on) and help each other and support each other, I think usually you have individual success in taking that path. The more you have success as a team then chances are that our players are doing something right and I think that’s important.”