It’s a highly charged word on its own, but it takes on a whole new meaning in Canadian junior hockey. It becomes a label. An identity. And it comes with a laundry list of sky-high expectations.
Since it was first introduced in 2005, the Canadian Hockey League has only granted ‘Exceptional Player Status’ to six athletes. Five into the OHL, and one into the QMJHL. There has yet to be a player granted exceptional status in the WHL, but with three players applying for next season, that could very well change.
The ‘exception’ allows 15-year-old players to play major junior a year early. It’s referred to as the ‘John Tavares’ rule, and a panel of members from Hockey Canada and the Ontario Hockey Federation perform the evaluation process for players wishing to play in the OHL.
Five have been drafted into the NHL. Three went first overall in both the OHL and NHL drafts. And two of them have gone on to become legitimate stars in the sport.
To apply for exceptional status in the CHL is a rigorous process. The leagues aren’t looking for greatness. In fact, many players have applied, been denied, and have still gone on to success in their junior years.
The OHL knocked it out of the park with their first three exceptional players. John Tavares, Aaron Ekblad, and finally, Connor McDavid. Sean Day came afterwards, but in hindsight, it looks like a mistake. Joe Veleno was the first and only player granted exceptional status in the QMJHL, but he hasn’t yet risen to the heights of Tavares or McDavid.
After Day, who was granted the honor in 2013, struggled mightily in his 15-year-old OHL season, the league and Hockey Canada faced tremendous backlash over the decision to grant him exceptional status. After all, he was following in the footsteps of three very successful hockey players. But his on-ice performance didn’t live up to those expectations.
In hindsight, Day’s father admitted in an interview to Sportsnet that they should have made a different decision.
“It was a tough situation, a weak team that he was coming into,” his father, Keith Day, says. “If we had it to do over again, we’d have let Sean play another year in minor midget or looked at other options instead of going to the OHL. He had to deal with attention and criticism that adults couldn’t deal with and he was just 15.” [Sportsnet]
The evaluation process for exceptional players buckled down even further. The OHL, determined not to make the same mistake, even turned away the NHL’s most recent first overall pick, Jack Hughes, when he applied in 2016.
So when a young and talented 14-year old applied for exceptional status in the OHL in December of 2018 and was granted the honor three months later, fans had many questions. Was he going to be a Tavares, a McDavid, or a Day?
The first time many hockey fans were exposed to Shane Wright’s talent was on a provincial stage during the OHL Cup, a showcase for the best minor-midget hockey teams from Ontario and USA — by invitation only. The final game was broadcast in Ontario by Sportsnet.
The Burlington, Ont. native had already racked up 150 points in 72 regular season games with the Don Mills Flyers in midget, playing with and against peers a full year older than him. He put up an additional 72 points in 33 games in the GTMMHL. It’s never a good idea to start combining numbers from different leagues, but Wright racked up 97 goals and 125 assists for 222 points in 105 games during the 2018-19 season.
If that isn’t exceptional, I’m not sure what is.
Wright took his game to another level at the OHL Cup, where he topped the tournament leaderboard with eight goals and 18 points in seven games. He led the Flyers to the championship game and put up three points in the final — including the primary assist on Brennan Othmann’s overtime, tournament-clinching goal.
Needless to say that expectations were skyrocketing for Wright, who was granted exceptional status into the OHL ten days before Don Mills won the tournament title. The rebuilding Kingston Frontenacs selected him first overall in the 2019 OHL Priority Selection. And in the months between then and puck drop on the 2019-20 OHL regular season, excitement and anticipation began to climb among junior hockey fans.
Tavares and McDavid hit the ground running right out of the gate in their OHL rookie seasons. Wright also put up points, but not to the same extent.
Tavares scored in his OHL debut and went on to score 12 goals and 18 points in his first 14 OHL games. McDavid went pointless in his first game, but went on to record points in the next 13, for six goals and 16 points.
In comparison, Wright played 14 games before leaving to represent Canada at the U-17 World Hockey Challenge. He went pointless in his first two OHL games before picking up four goals and nine assists in the next 12.
Leaving for the tournament proved to be a blessing in disguise. Wright has cited the U-17s as the ‘turning point’ for his season. In an interview with CHL, here’s what he had to say:
“I think right after I got back from the U17 World Championship. I had a lot of confidence coming back from that tournament so I feel like I really brought that back to Kingston and that really helped improve my play throughout the season.” [CHL]
Although Wright’s Canada Black fell short of medal glory at the U-17s, he was reunited on a line with former Flyers teammate Othmann and racked up four goals and seven points in the team’s five games.
When Wright returned from Western Canada, he was a different player. He became a one-man wrecking machine for the Frontenacs. Wright was dominant, he was scoring at a ridiculous pace, including back-to-back two goal games, and he was making things happen at both ends of the ice.
In the 16 games between Wright’s return from the U-17s to the end of 2019, he had 12 goals and 19 points. It was just a taste of what he would bring to the table in the new year.
Kingston received a late Christmas gift when snubbed-from-the-Slovak-WJC-roster Martin Chromiak decided to join the team on December 28. The 2020-draft eligible left-winger arrived in Kingston, and his presence not only gave the Frontenacs a second offensive weapon, but the chemistry he displayed with Wright from the get-go was evident. Finally, finally it appeared Wright would have a ready-made linemate to take their games — and the team — to another level.
What began as a slow-ish start to his 15-year old OHL season has turned into a record-breaking, history-making performance. Wright became the first OHL rookie to score 40 goals since Andrei Svechnikov — and the only other player to reach that mark in his 15-year old rookie year since Tavares.
Nine days ago, Wright matched McDavid’s 15-year old point totals in significantly fewer games. He has the best point totals among CHL rookies (as an underaged player) and is tenth in OHL goal scoring with 39 — more than players like Marco Rossi, Cole Perfetti, and Quinton Byfield. Despite going pointless in his last four games, Wright still has a chance to match the goals and points records Tavares set in his 15-year old season.
Scouts and OHL employees say Wright’s maturity level is off the charts, and it is. Wright was named one of Kingston’s alternate captains before the end of 2019, about a week before he turned 16 on January 5. With the way he carries himself on and off the ice, you would think he’s a 30-year old in a 16-year old’s body.
Wright’s physical stature isn’t imposing. He’s no Aaron Ekblad, no Connor McDavid. He’s of fairly average size at 6-foot, 183-lbs. He won’t overpower many opponents physically. But he will beat them with his vision, work ethic, and raw talent. In a draft year where several 17 and 18-year olds are shining in the CHL, a 16-year old is the one is taking major junior by storm.
With a handful of games left in the Frontenacs season, it remains to be seen whether or not Wright can reach Tavares’ numbers — and surpass them. Even if he doesn’t, Wright has put the Frontenacs on his back this season and dragged them out of the basement. They have fought and clawed their way into a playoff spot — the very last in the East. McDavid’s Erie Otters didn’t make the playoffs in his first year. Neither did Tavares’ Oshawa Generals. Wright’s Frontenacs continue to hang onto that last playoff spot, with the Niagara Ice Dogs nipping at their heels.
Three players have applied for exceptional status in the WHL for next season (a league that has never had an exceptional player). Hockey Canada has more important decisions to make. Given Wright’s success this season, the next player they grant the honor to will face enormous expectations.
Yesterday marked exactly one year after Hockey Canada granted Wright exceptional status into the OHL. With his rookie season nearly over, Wright is well on his way to proving that they made the right decision. He’s shattering Kingston Frontenacs franchise records, fans and scouts expectations, and challenging Tavares and McDavid for the title of best rookie season by an exceptional status player in CHL history.
Wright truly looks like he belongs in the OHL — and he feels as though he does, as well. Wright’s unprecedented success in his rookie season has restored fans’ faith in the exceptional status process. Hockey Canada and the OHF learned from their mistakes with Day, did their due diligence last year, and they got it Wright.
Statistics and information from Elite Prospects and the Ontario Hockey League.