LANGLEY, B.C. — Even the best players in the Canadian Hockey League can feel like underdogs at times.
Heading into the Kubota CHL/NHL top prospects game in Langley, B.C., on Wednesday, Ethan Gauthier knew many were counting out he and his teammates with Team White.
They were, after all, lining up against a Team Red captained by Connor Bedard, the 17-year-old phenom who's widely expected to go first overall in this summer's NHL entry draft.
“We knew we were kind of the underdogs in that game," said Gauthier, a right-winger for the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League's Sherbrooke Phoenix. "A lot of people thought Team Red was going to win with Bedard, (Zach) Benson, a lot of talent."
White not only won 4-2, but they kept Bedard off the scoresheet. The Regina Pats centre leads the Western Hockey League with 81 points (39 goals, 42 assists) in 33 appearances and broke numerous scoring records as he led Canada to a second straight gold at the world junior championship last month.
White's Scott Ratzlaff (WHL's Seattle Thunderbirds) made 24 saves on Wednesday before being replaced by Jackson Unger (WHL's Moose Jaw Warriors) midway through the second period. Unger stopped 21 shots in relief.
Stopping Bedard is a boon, Ratzlaf said.
“It's kind of a feather in your cap. They talk about him a lot," the goalie said. "He's got a great release, he can shoot from anywhere and he's very dynamic. So I think keeping him off the scoreboard, that was kind of a team goal, just making sure he's always covered, making sure we got eyes on him.”
Carson Rehkopf (Ontario Hockey League's Kitchener Rangers) and Callum Ritchie (OHL's Oshawa Generals) each had a goal and an assist in the victory. Colby Barlow (OHL's Owen Sound Attack) and Luca Pinelli (OHL's Ottawa 67's) also scored for White in the annual showcase of 40 of the Canadian Hockey League's top draft-eligible talents.
Red's goals came from Mathieu Cataford (QMJHL's Halifax Mooseheads) early in the first period and Benson (WHL's Winnipeg ICE) with 36 seconds left on the clock.
Carson Bjarnson (WHL's Brandon Wheat Kings) started for Red before coming off halfway through the game. Charlie Robertson (OHL's North Bay Battalion) took over in net and stopped 11-of-13 shots.
The key to the victory was starting off with physicality, Gauthier said.
"I think that's kind of what made them off guard there," he said. "So I think that’s the part of the game that made our success.”
Red pulled Robertson with 3:52 left on the clock in favour of an extra attacker and moments later Ritchie guided Rehkopf's shot into the yawning net to make it 4-1.
Bedard appeared to get in the middle of the goal celebration and was mobbed by his opponents. Fists flew and Bedard was sent to the box for cross-checking.
Asked whether he was surprised by the physicality Wednesday, the young star noted that he plays a contact sport.
"I mean it's hockey, it's competitive and you're allowed to hit," he said. "So you've always got to expect that and obviously it was good, I think, for the fans and everything."
Tempers flared just 29 seconds into the third when White's Kalan Lind (WHL's Red Deer Rebels) and Red's Alex Pharand (OHL's Sudbury Wolves) dropped the gloves. The pair exchanged blows over several moments before being separated by officials and sent to the box with fighting majors.
Some wise words in the locker room during the second intermission helped spur the offence, said Barlow.
“We actually had a great speech (by Vancouver Canucks legend Stan Smyl) and it kind of got us all going and we knew we had to win that third period," said White's captain.
Red's Riley Heidt (WHL's Prince George Cougars) went for a highlight reel play midway through the second, taking the puck around the back of the net and lifting it up on his stick in an attempt at "the Michigan." Ratzlaf kept tight to his post, however, and the ensuing shot bounced off the goalie's shoulder.
“I was kind of joking around, before I went out on the ice I just said ‘If you see me in the hole, just try and get me and I'll go down low and try it,'" said the centre. "I do it in practice all the time, but I've never actually tried to do it in a game. And I was shocked a bit when I got it up.”
Barlow drew Team White even with a power-play goal 6:25 into the game after Red's Coulson Pitre was sent to the box for holding.
Bjarnson stopped Barlow's initial attempt but the rebound popped out to the left-winger and he fired another shot in over the goalie's shoulder to tie the game 1-1.
Cataford opened the scoring for Red 3:22 into the opening frame. The centre unleashed a backhanded shot from the middle of the slot that snuck through traffic and past Ratzlaf stick side.
A strange moment before puck drop drew gasps from the crowd at the Langley Events Centre.
Team White was first to hit the ice and as they sprinted out of the tunnel, Dylan MacKinnon (Halifax Mooseheads) and Gauthier tripped over a dark carpet stationed over a dark logo at centre ice and went flying face first down the rink. Ritchie followed suit moments later.
All three quickly bounced up, apparently uninjured, and went on to play the game.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 25, 2023.
Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press