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The Straight Edge: Overabundance of 'all-star' games hurting junior players

John Tavares of the London Knights skates in a game against the Mississauga St. Michaels Majors. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)

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John Tavares of the London Knights skates in a game against the Mississauga St. Michaels Majors. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)

The winds in Southern Ontario have been pretty brutal in the past week, but nothing Mother Nature can churn out could compare with the collective gasp that sucked all the air out of GM Centre in Oshawa on Tuesday.

During the third period of the Canadian League’s Top Prospect Game, center John Tavares – he of the glowing halo that comes with world junior gold and the inside track on the No. 1 draft slot this summer – was hit awkwardly by Peterborough Petes power forward Zack Kassian behind the net.

Tavares landed on his shoulder, then rolled several times before momentarily collapsing in a heap of pain. As he made his way off the ice, he slammed his stick in frustration. Watching the display, I instantly got the horrific feeling something long-term and incredibly damaging had happened.

Days later, Johnny T is listed as day-to-day and people are saying it’s just a bruise, albeit a nasty one. But can you imagine if Tavares had separated his shoulder, or broken his collarbone? This is the kid who has had rules changed because he was so good so fast, the kid whose birthday is a painful reminder of the NHL draft’s eligibility cut-off. Can you imagine if a player with a goal-scoring ability comparative to Brett Hull sustained a career-threatening injury in a meaningless game?

Yeah, I said it. And no, I have not signed up and joined the Anti-Fun Police. I love major junior hockey and I love following the players involved. But the CHL has too many of these events and I don’t think it helps the players.

Last year, Steven Stamkos’ main highlight at the Top Prospects Game was fighting Yann Sauve of the Saint John Sea Dogs. Was it that tilt that vaulted him past Drew Doughty as the consensus No. 1 prospect? Nope.

Personally, traveling to Oshawa last year to see Stamkos assist on all three Sarnia goals and incite a riot when the Gens tried to goon him at the end of a 4-3 Oshawa win cemented his status in my mind. On a sojourn to Guelph, I saw Doughty single-handedly win the game for the Storm by going end-to-end for the deciding goal with just seconds left in a victory over London, thus confirming the defenseman was, in fact, a pretty close No. 2.

And let’s face it: NHL scouts see way more junior games live than I do. Watching the best 18-year-olds face off against each other is indeed fun – especially with Don Cherry and Bobby Orr doing the coaching – but if I’m an NHL lottery team, I am not in favor of the practice.

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For the fans, of course, these are great games – can’t deny that. But even for the players, these extra games are a drag. Stamkos, for example, had a brutal stretch last season where his Sting played several nights in a row. Then he and teammate Mark Katic (an Islanders draft pick) were driven from Sarnia to Toronto (a fair hike), where they boarded a flight to Sudbury for the ADT CHL-Russia Challenge. Between the Top Prospects Game, the Russian Challenge and a trip to the Czech Republic for the world juniors, that’s a lot of extra hockey.

And again, I’m sorry if I sound anti-fun here, but would not just one All-Star Game suffice? I suppose what this comes down to is what’s best for major junior hockey (lots of special events featuring high-profile stars) and what’s best for the players and the NHL teams drafting them (more rest, less chance of injury).

Because while I can’t prove it, I’m pretty sure I heard lamps in Atlanta, Long Island and St. Louis smashing against walls as soon as Tavares hit the deck.

Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Mondays and Wednesdays, his column - The Straight Edge - every Friday, and his features, The Hot List and Prep Watch appears Tuesdays and Thursdays.

For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.

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