The Lethbridge Hurricanes decided last fall that Joel Topping wasn’t quite ready for prime time Western Hockey League duty.
That decision, in essence, was a coup for the midget AAA Red Deer Optimist Rebels as the local product has been arguably the club’s top rearguard this season.
“It wasn’t easy, I had to switch my schooling and make the whole transition back to Red Deer,” said Topping, who had been enrolled in high school in Lethbridge for three weeks before receiving the news that he failed to crack the ‘Canes’ regular-season roster.
“They (Hurricanes) had given me indications during training camp and through the preseason that I was going to make the team,” said Topping. “So that was disappointing, but I got back on my feet and started to have a real good time with the boys (Optimist Rebels teammates) here in Red Deer.
“The Hurricanes are done playing hockey and we’re still going on, so I guess it was a bit of a blessing in disguise, for sure.”
The fact that Topping was joining a top-notch midget AAA program made the move back to Red Deer easier to handle.
“Absolutely. A big thing that made it easier was knowing that with Doug Quinn and the rest of the coaching staff being here as well as a lot of returning guys, we’d have a good squad,” said Topping.
“That’s part of the rationale that Lethbridge used as well — that I was going back to a good program and would become a better player for them (‘Canes) in the future.”
Quinn, the veteran head coach who guided the Optimist Rebels to a third consecutive Alberta Midget Hockey League title this season and a berth in the Telus Cup — the national midget AAA championship — starting Monday in Leduc, didn’t expect to have Topping’s services through the 2011-12 campaign.
“We were a little surprised to get him back. He actually had a real good opportunity to make the Lethbridge team,” said Quinn. “Certainly kids are always disappointed when they get sent back, but he’s really developed as a leader for me and he’s really matured over the season.
“With his offensive skills and ability to work a power play . . . there’s not many better in our league than Joel. He’s one of our leaders, one of the main guys in the dressing room and during practice. I’ve been really happy with how Joel has developed this year.”
Topping was the lone Rebels defenceman to play in the AMHL all-star game and racked up 31 points — including 10 goals — in 34 regular-season games and contributed another goal and six assists in 10 playoff outings.
He was also a force in the best-of-three Pacific Region series in which the Red Deer squad swept the visiting Vancouver Northwest Giants.
And now the six-foot, 184-pound blueliner and his teammates are preparing for their Telus Cup experience.
“Not many kids in the country get a chance to play for a national championship. We’re excited and we’re going there to win it,” said Topping, who celebrated his 17th birthday last month.
While it’s been two weeks since the Optimist Rebels captured the Pacific Region crown and punched their ticket to the Telus Cup tournament, the excitement has barely abated.
“We’re still riding a high but we’re also doing our best to kind of keep it even keel and not get too excited,” said Topping. “We’re rolling into the Telus Cup with what I feel is the right mindset.”
The Telus Cup will almost certainly provide Topping with his final midget AAA action. The Hurricanes have big plans for their second-round selection — 41st overall — in the 2010 WHL bantam draft.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that he’s going to play in the Western Hockey League next season,” said Quinn. “He has the physical tools, he can skate as well as anybody and he shoots missiles. He’s ready to play at that level.”
And Topping knows that this season’s experiences will prove invaluable once he takes the next step.
“If there’s anything that I’ve learned from watching my older brother (Tri-City Americans defenceman Mitch) is that it’s tough to play in the WHL as a 16-year-old. He’s told me that himself,” said Joel. “Playing here this season has really helped with my maturity.”
The opportunity to get extensive ice time and develop under Quinn’s guidance has also been a positive.
“Doug has worked with me one-on-one and he’s done a lot of things to elevate the game of every single player on the team,” said Topping.
• The Optimist Rebels will take on the Saskatoon Contacts in the opening game of the six-team Telus Cup at 12:30 p.m. Monday.
Red Deer faces the Moncton Flyers at 4 p.m. Tuesday and goes up against the host Leduc Oil Kings at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday.
The Optimist Rebels will conclude round-robin play versus Quebec champion Phenix du College Esther-Blondin and Ontario champion Sudbury Wolves Thursday at 4 p.m. and Friday at 9:30 a.m. The semifinals are set for 2 and 6 p.m. Saturday and the bronze- and gold-medal games are scheduled for 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. Sunday.
• Eleven players still competing in the NHL playoffs have taken part in Telus Cup tournaments over the years, including Optimist Rebels alumni Derek Morris (Phoenix) and Brad Stuart (Detroit).