Oshawa's Cole Cassels (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
Cole Cassels has taken the slow development road. But it has made him a better all-around player – and a CHL Memorial Cup champion with the Oshawa Generals.Kelowna’s Leon Draisaitl was the Memorial Cup MVP, but in two games (plus a minute and a half of overtime), the Edmonton Oilers prospect didn’t have a single point against the Oshawa Generals, who raised the major junior trophy thanks to a 2-1 overtime win over the Rockets. Instant hero Anthony Cirelli, a 2015 draft prospect, scored both goals in the final, but Cole Cassels was the embodiment of a Generals squad that grinded, smothered and physically punished teams all year long. Cassels, taken 85th overall by Vancouver in 2013, helped suffocate Connor McDavid in the OHL final, holding the Erie Otters phenom to one point in the first two games of Oshawa’s five-game series triumph. Oh, and Cassels wasn’t on the ice for that power play assist. A premier two-way center who also packs a physical wallop, Cassels was a revelation for the Generals. “He’s the guy that makes our team go,” said coach D.J. Smith. “Offensively, defensively, penalty kill, power play; he’s the first guy on the ice for every situation and he’s the last guy on at the end of the game. He’s the heartbeat of this team.”
The son of former NHLer Andrew Cassels, Cole was a rink rat in Vancouver thanks to his dad’s days as a Canuck. The youngster would also visit Columbus when Andrew played for the Blue Jackets and Cole would cut down right-handed sticks used by players such as Ray Whitney for himself. In his early teens, Cole moved to Ohio, where he became an elite player in a mid-Ohio hockey market still in the growing stages.“My buddies in school were football players and lacrosse was big,” Cole said. “I was really the only hockey player. Hockey players were a different breed. We were close in the AAA program and I keep in touch with all of them.” Far from an instant success in Oshawa, Cassels came in as a rookie on a rebuilding team deep with emerging talent in 2011-12. Boone Jenner and Scott Laughton were already there and as those players got better, so did the Gens. Once they aged-out, it was Cassels’ turn as No. 1 center and by then, he was well seasoned. On top of his defensive work, Cassels also finished this year second in team scoring and tied for first in playoff points with Isles pick Michael Dal Colle. “So many parents in our league want their kids to be superstars right away,” Smith said. “And if they don’t get the proper ice time right away, they want to be traded or they launch complaints. Cole Cassels developed the right way. And I would argue with anyone that maybe some of the guys that played all those power play minutes at 17 are nowhere near where he is today. “He had to learn the defensive game to get ice time, he had to work to get on the second power play; he had to go through those learning experiences. And when it was his time to be the No. 1 guy, he was ready.” Ready enough, it turns out, to deliver Oshawa its fifth Memorial Cup title and first since Eric Lindros and crew won it in 1990. While ex-GM Mike Gillis may have made a mess of the Canucks before he was fired in 2014, his greatest gift may have been that 2013 draft. Bo Horvat and Hunter Shinkaruk were taken before Cassels. And given the grit in which Horvat, Cassels and 2014 first-rounder Jake Virtanen play, the Canucks are going to be less fun to play against soon. “There’s a bunch of two-way guys coming up, so that means there will be responsible hockey played in Vancouver for years to come,” Cassels said. “That’s assuring to see.” This feature appears in the 2014-15 Season Commerative edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.