A Road Less Travelled
By: Jason La Rose & Melanie Kornacki
The path to Canada’s national under-17 development camp took Noah Dobson and Ethan Lavallee to Salzburg, Austria for a unique hockey experience
Vancouver NW Giants. Toronto Marlboros. Lloydminster Bobcats. Saint John Vito’s. York Simcoe Express. Burnaby Winter Club. Grenadiers de Châteauguay. Regina Pat Canadians.
Club teams from one side of the country to the other are represented among the 111 players at Canada’s national under-17 development camp, but one team that won’t be found on a Canadian minor hockey map tends to stand out a little more than the others.
While most players took a more traditional approach to Midget hockey, Noah Dobson and Ethan Lavallee packed up their skates and headed across the Atlantic to spend the season with EC Red Bull Salzburg.
They saw action with the U17, U18 and U20 teams in the Red Bull program, and gained a once-in-a-lifetime perspective on the game, how it’s played overseas, and how players there are developed.
Back on Canadian ice this week at U17 camp, the defencemen say their Austrian adventure can only help them as they begin their first foray into the Hockey Canada Program of Excellence.
Under the guidance of former NHL coach Pierre Pagé, who runs the Red Bull Academy, the duo had the chance to spend more time working on the finer points of their games and truly grow as players.
“You were able to develop your skills throughout the season, which usually is sometimes hard to do when you have a lot of games,” Dobson says of his experience.
One of the biggest changes was the move to international-sized ice, meaning more ground for the blue-liners to cover, and a larger focus on skill rather than size; Dobson was quick to point out that players were apt to play with the puck on their stick more on the big surface.
“It was hard to adjust at first, but I got used to it pretty quick,” said Lavallee, the biggest player at U17 camp at 6-foot-7 and 222 pounds. “My skating improved a ton from just moving and being exposed to the big ice.”
So how do a pair of Canadians from hometowns 1,800 kilometres apart – Dobson is a Summerside, P.E.I., native, while Lavallee hails from Skead, Ont. – end up skating together in Salzburg?
Dobson was scouted while he anchored the Prince Edward Island blue-line at the 2015 Canada Winter Games in Prince George, B.C., while Lavallee got a call from former NHLer Brian Savage, who recently moved his family to Salzburg after his 15-year-old son was recruited to the Red Bull program.
“He called me one day, and I was over [in Salzburg] the next week,” Lavallee says of the whirlwind process.
While both admit they missed Canadian hockey and a final chance to play minor hockey at home, it was simply too hard to pass up an opportunity to spend time at the Red Bull Academy.
The facility is among the best in Europe; it includes two international-size rinks, a skating and shooting centre, on-ice video analysis, a fully-outfitted training centre, medical facilities, dorms, and a cafeteria with a menu suited to the needs of young athletes.
Players also have access to coaches, sports physicians and physiotherapists, and the academy provides educational services for students from around the world.
A typical day for Dobson and Lavallee included a skate and online schooling (Canadian curriculum) with a tutor in the morning, and training sessions and practice in the afternoon.
So after a season unlike any they had experienced before, one that included trips to the Czech Republic, Finland and Switzerland, the boys are back and looking ahead to what comes next.
They’re on competing teams in Calgary – Dobson with Red and Lavallee with White – and will head their separate ways after camp to begin their CHL careers; Dobson was the sixth-overall pick of the Titan de Acadie-Bathurst in the QMJHL Entry Draft, while Lavallee had to wait a little longer, going 79th overall to the Sarnia Sting in the OHL Priority Selection.