By Scott Wheeler
October 7, 2016
You could hear him yelling from anywhere in the arena. As the game progressed, he got louder, angrier, like a disappointed coach.
On every faceoff, he points and yells, directing teenagers where to go with his voice and his stick.
During the play, he waves at them, telling inexperienced teammates to move or circle back to retrieve a zone-exit pass.
When he comes off, he shouts at coaches and players who aren’t paying attention — gazes locked on the play.
On the rare occasions where he’s on the bench, often just for brief moments to catch his breath, he stands, confidently talking to players on the bench or on the ice. They listen.
As the game draws closer, tied 1-1 in the third period, he gets even more involved. He wants the puck. And the win.
“HEY,” he screams for a pass on a late third period powerplay, as a Finnish rookie turns and gives it to him.
“YEAH,” he yells again after quickly distributing it down low, calling for a return pass when he doesn’t like what he sees.
Two years removed from a game-winning goal on route to the Memorial Cup, Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Stephen Desrocher is back in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) as an aging star. He’s just 20 years old but he’s his Kingston Frontenacs team’s best, most experienced player.
“When I’m talking the most, I’m the most involved in the game so I try to be as vocal as I can,” Desrocher said of his on-ice demeanour after a dominant 2-1 win over a more talented Ottawa 67’s team. “I’m just trying to help the young guys out as much as I can. When you’re out there and someone’s talking to you it’s a lot easier to play when you’re hearing voices and guys are helping you out with plays and talking to you and giving you ideas on the ice.”
He feels he has learned a lot from his experience in the OHL and two rookie camps and training camps with the Leafs.
“It’s not so much me telling them what to do but I try and take what I learned from the Leafs and put it into my game and hopefully some of the younger guys can pick up the little tips and tricks from my game and they can follow me,” he added.
Coming into the season, Desrocher didn’t set goals on how many points he wanted to rack up. He knows he can be dominant offensively. Instead, he set goals for how much he wants to be on the ice in all situations.
“I want to be a powerplay guy, I want to be a penalty kill guy, I want to be a guy who is going to be on the ice in the last two minutes of a game whether we’re up 2-1 or down 2-1,” he said of his ambitions for this year.
The Leafs are proud of his progression, he said. But he wants to continue to grow.
“They think I’m getting better constantly, they like how I’m not plateauing and I’m improving every time I come to camp,” the 6-2 defender said. “Specifically, they want to make sure that I’m solid defensively, I’m not getting beat, I’m making quick, smart outlet passes and I’m taking advantage of my shot by getting it through and not getting shots blocked.”
And early on, he’s exceeding those his and the Leafs’ goals, playing nearly 30 minutes a night — counted on to be ready to play every other shift.
On the ice, his voice is backed by his play. On Thursday night, against the 67’s, Desrocher took quick shifts, quarterbacked the top pairing in all situations, blocked out puck carriers to prevent zone entries with ease, carried the puck deep into the offensive zone to create chances, and stickhandled untouched through traffic in the neutral zone.
He nearly scored twice. Once when he tapped his stick on a backdoor play and his teammate put the pass behind him. Another, when he tried to tuck a puck far side on a wraparound after a near end-to-end rush.
When he was on the ice, which seemed like all the time, the 67’s couldn’t create. Once, on a play in the third period, Desrocher feigned as if he was out of position, stepping forward in the neutral zone on a 2-on-1 rush for the 67’s before twisting before the pass was made to intercept what top 2017 NHL Draft prospect Sasha Chmelevski thought was a breakaway pass.
Without top offensive threats Warren Foegele and Lawson Crouse, gone to NHL camps, the Frontenacs aren’t expected to win games. But Desrocher so heavily controlled play that his Kingston team outshot the 67’s 35-19, four of which were his.
After being outscored 9-3 in two games without him to start the season, the Frontenacs are 2-1 since Desrocher’s return.
And the league has already taken note.
“He’s an even better kid than player and we need him to be a big leader for us not just on the ice but in the dressing room and in practice,” Frontenacs head coach Paul McFarland said of his star defensemen after the win.
In practice, McFarland has encouraged Desrocher to be focal and active.
“As one of our leaders, he’s picked it up and he leads by example each and every day,” he said.
In a pre-season OHL coaches poll, before Desrocher had even returned, one coach voted the 2015 sixth round pick the league’s best overaged player over the likes of junior hockey superstars like Christian Dvorak.
McFarland believes Desrocher’s game has come a long way.
“His defending is better, his gaps are better as far as standing up guys before the blueline, the game has slowed down for him and he makes plays with the puck that we need,” McFarland added. “We need him to be our best player if we’re going to have success.”
And he is.
“We’re really fortunate that he came back this year,” McFarland finished. “We’re going to do whatever we can to get him a pro contract, because he deserves it.”