April 6, 2013. The annual OHL Priority Selection. 299 players were chosen.

Anthony Cirelli was not one of them.

A native of Woodbridge, Ontario, Cirelli was a member of the Mississauga Reps Minor Midgets during the 2012-13 season. At 5’10”, yet 146 pounds, he did not succeed statistically during that 2012-13 season, recording only sixteen points in 33 games. The roster that year, too, was one of players not truly destined for major junior hockey either. A current look at those who dressed for the Reps that year shows a lot of current OJHL and GOJHL mainstays, unsure of what their future holds.

After going undrafted, he went back to the Mississauga Reps, this time to play major midget hockey. Once again, Cirelli found himself surrounded by players destined for the lower levels of junior hockey. He even found himself an affiliate with the OJHL’s Mississauga Chargers, appearing in one regular-season game for them during the 2013-14 season. That campaign was an offensively better one for Cirelli, recording 28 points in 31 games. Still small by major junior standards, and quickly aging out of midget hockey, it was uncertain what he was going to do next.

There was some cause for optimism. There had been several players over the years who slipped through their initial draft and emerged being picked the following year. Almost one year to the day of his initial draft, however, Cirelli was once again left without being selected.

Cirelli could have easily given up; fate, however, was about to step in for him.

***

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Anthony Cirelli went undrafted twice before being signed as a free agent by the Oshawa Generals in 2014. (Credit: Terry Wilson/OHL Images)

Little did Cirelli realize but, while he was playing in Mississauga, major junior scouts were still watching him. One scout in attendance was employed by the Oshawa Generals. He was adamant about having Cirelli play in Oshawa, one of the more renowned and celebrated franchises in OHL history. The tenacity paid off and he was invited to the Generals’ training camp in the summer of 2014. The team really liked what they saw and, on September 1 of that year, it was announced that Cirelli had been signed to an OHL standard players’ agreement.

The major junior dream that had eluded him for two years had finally come true.

***

The 2014-15 Oshawa Generals were expected to do great things that season. They had a significantly impressive roster, one bolstered by eight NHL draft picks. Those players included recent New York Islanders first-rounder Michael Dal Colle, as well as Montreal Canadiens first-round pick Michael McCarron, who had been acquired from the London Knights in a blockbuster trade deadline deal.

During that 2014-15 season, Cirelli thrived. Donning the number 22 vacated by Boone Jenner, he had recorded his first OHL career point, an assist, by his third game. He scored his first OHL career goal in his eighth game, one in which he also recorded an assist for a third star performance. By November 2014, Cirelli was starting to become even more comfortable in major junior hockey, and it was showing in his statistics. He had a six-game point-scoring streak during that month, including a two-goal game in Saginaw against the Spirit and a three-point contest in Mississauga against the Steelheads.

It soon became evident that Cirelli was a player to watch.

Impressively, Cirelli managed to play all 68 games in 2014-15, something that not many players get to do, especially in a rookie campaign. He recorded 36 points, finishing eighth in team scoring. As a collective, the Generals finished the season with a record of 51-11-6, repeating as East Division champions, and setting several team and individual records along the way. They were the team to beat come playoff time, and it seemed like the pesky centreman was going to be an up-and-coming threat.

The Generals found themselves winning the Eastern Conference championship in 2015, setting themselves up for a final against Connor McDavid and the Erie Otters. Already with a game-winning goal during the conference finals against the North Bay Battalion, Cirelli emerged scoring a second game-winning goal in Game 2 of the OHL finals. The Generals lost Game 3 in Pennsylvania but, thanks in part to Cirelli’s two-assist effort in Game 4, they went back home to Oshawa up 3-1, winning the series on home ice in Oshawa in Game 5.

A young man who almost never played major junior hockey was now about to play for its biggest trophy: The Memorial Cup.

It seemed at times that the Generals could have been outclassed at the 2015 Memorial Cup but they managed to win all three of their round-robin games, each of them by one goal. Cirelli recorded one helper in the round-robin game against the heavily favoured Kelowna Rockets, assisting on Tobias Lindberg’s game-winning goal. Due to their 3-0-0 round-robin play, the Generals were given a bye to the Memorial Cup final, giving them four days off until the deciding game on May 31, 2015. Their opponent eventually turned out to be Kelowna.

Down 1-0 to the Rockets going into the second period, Cirelli scored high glove side on Rockets goaltender Jackson Whistle at 13:50 of the middle frame to tie the game. The Generals nearly pulled ahead in the third but they had a goal called back, something that could have swung the momentum either way.

The game was to be decided in overtime.

At the Memorial Cup, overtime periods are just like ones in the playoffs. They are twenty minutes long, and they continue until a winning goal is scored. Prior to 2015, the final had gone into overtime seven times, including in 1990 when the Generals won in double overtime against the Kitchener Rangers on a goal by Bill Armstrong. To make it even more of a struggle, no overtime-winning goal scorer up to that point had made it to the NHL.

From the opening faceoff of the extra session, the Generals immediately placed pressure on the Rockets. Only eighty seconds into the extra frame, Whistle let out a rebound on a Chris Carlisle point shot that came right to the side of the net. Spotting an opportunity, it was pounced on — and poked in — by none other than Cirelli.

The rookie had come through when his team needed it the most.

***

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After being drafted by the Tampa Bay Lightning, Cirelli returned to Oshawa and received an A on his jersey. (Credit: Terry Wilson/OHL Images)

Less than a month later came the 2015 NHL Entry Draft. For a player who had never been chosen in the OHL Priority Selection, the NHL Entry Draft surely could not elude him either. Cirelli found himself 67th among North American skaters in the final Central Scouting rankings. Even though he attended the pre-draft combine, he did not attend the draft in Sunrise, Florida, but the day did not conclude without his name being called. With the 72nd overall pick, the Tampa Bay Lightning selected Cirelli, making sure that he would not full victim to a third draft elusion.

Cirelli attended the Lightning’s development and main camps in 2015 before being reassigned to the Generals. Unlike the season before, the team had been decimated by graduations of key players. The coaches, however, saw great leadership capability in the second-year centreman, giving him an A on his jersey. He started the 2015-16 season on a four-game point streak but the first half of the new campaign was marred with inconsistency, both on a personal and team level. Finding themselves in the core of a rebuild, on New Year’s Day 2016, the Generals traded fourth-year forward and team captain Michael Dal Colle to the Kingston Frontenacs; in exchange, Oshawa received rookie forward Robbie Burt and a slew of draft picks.

The trade proved personally advantageous for Cirelli as, after the departure of Dal Colle, he assumed the Generals’ captaincy. A player whose aspiration for the OHL once seemed almost unlikely was now the captain of one of major junior hockey’s most storied franchises.

By the end of his second OHL season, Cirelli had recorded 59 points, finishing first in team scoring. His 38 assists were most on the team. His 21 goals were second behind only Kenny Huether for the team lead. He appeared in his 100th OHL career game on the same day as the Dal Colle trade, recording an assist against the Sudbury Wolves. Thanks to his leadership, the Generals managed to squeak into the playoffs, grabbing the eighth and final Eastern Conference berth. In a twist of fate, their first-round opponent was the Frontenacs, who not only had Dal Colle but also had defenceman Stephen Desrocher, who had been acquired by Kingston in November 2015. Cirelli had points in three of the games in the series, including a goal and an assist in both games in Oshawa, but he and his teammates found themselves eliminated in five games. Four days after being eliminated, he was signed by the Syracuse Crunch, the AHL minor league affiliate of the Lightning. He appeared in three games toward the end of the regular season.

Things came to further fruition for Cirelli on May 19, 2016. That day, he signed a standard three-year entry level contract with Tampa Bay. A little more than three years after going undrafted in the 2013 OHL Priority Selection, he was a bona fide NHL prospect.

After yet another successful pair of camps with the Lightning, Cirelli returned to Oshawa with something to prove. The Generals were expected to be a better team than they were the year before, one much like the team he was on as a rookie two years prior, and he was at the helm once again. He returned a changed man mentally and physically, bulking up to 6’1″ and 184 pounds, three inches taller and nearly 40 pounds heavier than when he first joined the Generals. He scored a goal in his first game of the season on September 30, 2016. Two days later, he recorded his first OHL career hat trick against the Windsor Spitfires and, for good measure, he added an assist on the game-winning goal by Renārs Krastenbergs as the Generals won 5-2. He enjoyed a nine-game point streak from October 9-30, 2016, recording sixteen points (five goals, eleven assists) during that stretch. He became the team’s best faceoff man. Everything seemed to be going Cirelli’s way, and the Generals were reaping the rewards.

Cirelli also achieved some personal milestones along the way. His hat trick empty netter on October 2, 2016, in Windsor turned out to be his 100th OHL career point. He appeared in his 150th OHL career game on November 22, 2016, in Peterborough against the Petes, a contest in which he recorded a goal and an assist.

Things were about to go from good to great.

***

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Cirelli assumed the Generals’ captaincy after Michael Dal Colle was traded to Kingston on New Year’s Day 2015. (Credit: Aaron Bell/OHL Images)

After appearing in one game of the 2016 Canada-Russia Subway SuperSeries, Cirelli was invited to the Canadian World Junior evaluation camp. It had been three years since the last time an Oshawa Generals player had suited up for Canada when Scott Laughton, currently of the Philadelphia Flyers, donned the maple leaf for the tournament in Malmö, Sweden. It had been almost eight years since a Generals player had won a gold medal, the last being John Tavares, the current captain of the New York Islanders, in the 2009 tournament in Ottawa.

No stranger to adversity, Cirelli went to the camp with hopes of making a good impression. He had never represented his country in any competition before so the pressure was on. Despite his lack of inexperience on the international stage, intangibles such as foot speed, defensive acumen, and faceoff prowess helped land Cirelli a spot on the roster.

As the host country, Canada was heavily favoured to win gold. As the games progressed, it seemed that it was a forgone conclusion. They played their hearts out in every game and they emerged making it to the final. Unfortunately, dreams of gold were not meant to be as they lost 5-4 in a shootout in the final to the United States.

Cirelli and his teammates had to settle for silver.

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In seven games at the 2017 World Juniors, Cirelli recorded seven points and he was named one of Canada’s top three players. ( Credit: TSN.ca/Canadian Press)

Despite the medal setback, Cirelli had a banner tournament. He finished with seven points (three goals, four assists) in seven games, playing on a line with fellow Lightning prospect Mitchell Stephens, as well as with Kelowna Rockets forward Dillon Dubé, who knew his centreman well from the 2015 Memorial Cup final. He finished the tournament with a plus-8 ranking, tops on Team Canada and tying him for second in the entire tournament. He also finished second in the tournament in faceoff percentage at 66.4%, winning 69 of the 104 draws he took. For his efforts, he was named one of Canada’s top three players as selected by coaches.

It was safe to assume that, in his international début, Cirelli was highly regarded, warranting every accolade he received.

***

With the 2017 World Junior Championships behind him, Cirelli will now return to Oshawa. His team scoring lead has been overtaken since his absence but his 33 points in 25 games thus far have him only one point behind Eric Henderson and Mitchell Vande Sompel, and only five points behind Domenic Commisso. He will have at least one new teammate in Matt Brassard, who was acquired from the Barrie Colts shortly before the new year. The Generals are still holding on to their East Division lead, the Peterborough Petes on their tails, and there are some rumblings as to what the team will do come the trade deadline to win their third division crown in four years.

There is no doubt that Cirelli will be given a hero’s welcome before the Generals’ next home game, January 8 against the Kingston Frontenacs. Oshawa’s fans, as well as Canadian fans from coast to coast, should be proud of him.

***

Thomas Edison once said, “Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.” Anthony Cirelli has always tried just one more time and he has certainly succeeded.

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