Joe Veleno not looking back as he prepares to lead Canada at world juniors

PLYMOUTH, Mich. — There have been moments in Joe Veleno’s young hockey career where he questioned the decision. At the time, however, it was all he wanted.

The native of Kirkland, Que., had just registered a 16-goal, 52-point season in 41 games with his midget-AAA team in 2014-15, and felt ready for a big leap forward.

The sport’s national body eventually agreed, granting Veleno exceptional status — a first in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League — and paving the way for the 15-year-old to be selected No. 1 overall by the Saint John Sea Dogs.

Veleno joined a select group that includes John Tavares, Aaron Ekblad and Connor McDavid in getting the nod from Hockey Canada to play major junior 12 months earlier than the rest of his age group.

But some eyebrows were raised at the decision because the centre, while the youngest member of his midget team, hadn’t even led the club in scoring and wasn’t particularly big at six feet and 168 pounds.

Still, Veleno had his status and was going to meet the challenge head-on. But as they often do, things didn’t quite go according to plan.

Veleno registered 43 points in 62 games as a QMJHL rookie and 40 in 45 contests during his second campaign. He helped the Sea Dogs get to the Memorial Cup in 2017, but was traded to the Drummondville Voltiguers the following December for five draft picks.

He put up a combined 79 points in 64 games in 2017-18, and finally started to dominate this past season with 42 goals and 104 points in 59 outings as Drummondville made the league semifinals.

Solid, yes, but not necessarily exceptional.

“I kind of second-guess myself whether I should have got it or not,” Veleno said of lobbying to play junior at 15. “But at the end of the day it was a decision that I made at that point in time. I try not to look back at it too much.

“I’m just trying to focus on where I am right now.”

That’s with Hockey Canada at the World Junior Summer Showcase in suburban Detroit.

Veleno and 36 other teenagers are taking part in the event as the country ramps up preparations for the 2020 world junior hockey championship with a series of practices and exhibition games.

Now 19, Veleno is one of six returning players from last year’s team that finished a disappointing sixth in Vancouver and Victoria, although only he and star winger Alexis Lafreniere have hit the ice in Plymouth.

A year younger than the majority of his teammates at the 2019 world juniors, Veleno was cast in a supporting role — a difficult situation for a player finally rounding into form.

“It’s never easy,” said Veleno, who had two assists in five games at the under-20 tournament. “The coaching staff felt the need to put some other players on the ice. It’s their decision, but my goal was just to give it my best.

“My attitude (and) my work ethic around the rink, that’s something I can control.”

With that in mind, Veleno figures to be one of the leaders this time around in the Czech Republic.

“I’ve done it in the past,” said Veleno, who was selected 30th at the 2018 NHL draft by Detroit. “I know most of these players. They’re easy to get along with, they’re easy to talk to.”

One of just five players granted exceptional status to suit up in junior — Sean Day is the other — he has advice for the sixth after Shane Wright received the thumbs up Hockey Canada in March and was taken first overall by the Kingston Frontenacs in the OHL draft.

“There’s definitely going to be some rough roads,” Veleno said. “Shane’s got to stay mentally tough.”

Canada’s management and coaching staff is expecting big things from Veleno, now listed at six foot one and 191 pounds, at this year’s world juniors.

“He’s been a great contributor at other age levels,” said Shawn Bullock, director of the program’s men’s teams. “When he did play (last year) he was effective for us.

“Now it’s time for him to step up.”

Veleno did just that in Canada’s first game at the summer showcase, a 4-1 victory over the United States. He registered a goal and an assist playing on a line with Lafreniere — expected to be the No. 1 pick at the 2020 NHL draft — and Kirby Dach, who was taken third overall in June by Chicago.

It’s early August and the main selection camp is months away but Canada might have already found its top trio for the event, which gets underway Dec. 26.

“Those two players, their skill levels are off the charts,” said Veleno, who’s set play pro in the American Hockey League this season after completing four years of major junior. “It’s a lot of fun.”

As he looks back, life wasn’t all that fun as he struggled under the weight of expectation.

But Veleno’s convinced he’s better for having gone through what he did as his focus turns to being one of Canada’s catalysts this winter.

“It was little bit of a roller-coaster,” he said of the last four years. “It made me a lot more mature.

“I learned a lot … it made me a better person.”

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