RED DEER – Wearing Alberta blue at the 2021 WHL Cup, Finn McLaughlin and his provincial teammates were nearly crowned champions in western Canada's biggest prospect tournament.
The 15-year-old defenceman from Canmore and Team Alberta lost 5-2 in the gold medal game against British Columbia on Sunday (Oct. 24) in Red Deer, but McLaughlin reflected on a truly inspiring experience with the top U16 players.
"It would have been great if we got gold, but getting there and exceeding our expectations is awesome and I think the team really bonded well," said McLaughlin, who had one goal and two helpers in a condensed, five-game schedule.
McLaughlin flew in from Chicago, where he's playing hockey with the Windy City U15 AAA Storm, to play in the tournament after trying out and being selected for the Team Alberta this past summer.
"[McLaughlin] was not only part of the team, but I think he was a very strong contributor to our success," said Serge Lajoie, head coach of Team Alberta.
"Right from the first viewing we had of Finn in the evaluation camps you could see a very cerebral player; very good at a high-level of deception in his game and was able to break down pressure; that a player of his skill would continue to mature and get stronger physically and that aspect of his game is going to continue to grow."
In the WHL Cup, the Western Hockey League keeps a close watch on the rising prospects, most of which will be selected in the 2021 WHL Prospects Draft.
Starting on Oct. 20, Team Alberta went 3-1-1, only losing to B.C. over the five-day schedule.
Alberta beat Manitoba 6-2 in the opening game, but was quickly tested by Saskatchewan the following day.
Saskatchewan had four goals up on the scoreboard in the opening seconds of the second period, and Alberta, sitting on a goose egg, made a miraculous comeback and scored five unanswered goals en route to an overtime victory.
In game three, the Wild Rose boys were up against B.C., who won in overtime, 5-4.
Alberta defeated Manitoba 2-0 on Saturday (Oct. 23) to advance to the gold medal game against their tournament foes.
Due to the big-game atmosphere, McLaughlin said he was a bit nervous before puck drop on Sunday, but was excited to play on that stage.
"It was an extremely intense game," said McLaughlin. "Everyone was extremely focused and fast-paced and it was a hard game to play. You don't want to make any mistakes, but you also want to play your best to try and help your team get a goal. A lot of different players had different roles in the tournament and everyone just stepped up and played their best."
After a scoreless opening frame, B.C. struck first in the second period. It was a short-lived lead, however, as Alberta tied things up a few minutes later.
Taking a 2-1 lead into the third, B.C. added to its lead in the first five minutes to go up 3-1. Alberta made things interesting when Garrett Thom scored a short-handed breakaway with less than five minutes to go.
Despite Alberta pulling their goalie multiple times, B.C. hung tough and added two empty-netters to close out the championship game.
McLaughlin was arguably one of the strongest defencemen for Alberta throughout the tournament, said Lajoie.
The coach complimented the pupil's outlet passing, clever-play, and ability to generate offence on the power play.
“What I liked about him was his maturity and team-first attitude," said Lajoie. "Off the ice, he fit in very well with the group and was just a wonderful young man with a very bright future ahead of him."
Throughout the tournament, McLaughlin thought he played well and made some solid plays. As an offensive-defenceman, he had his own power play unit and felt he helped the team create scoring opportunities.
"My teammates and coaches and the organizers were all amazing," McLaughlin said. "They did a great job. All my teammates were awesome to play with and are great people off the ice and the coaches helped me out a lot."
McLaughlin travelled back to Chicago a day after the tournament ended, where he's a first-year student-athlete.
"This year the opportunity came up [to play in Chicago] and it seemed too good to be true so I accepted it. It's amazing down there," he said.
"It's really fun just playing hockey."