By Larry Moko
On display in one of the trophy cases at St. Mary Catholic Secondary school is a rather ordinary-looking plaque/team picture that represents something very special to Crusaders’ hockey coach Jason Kokoski.
The award is from the 2010 Hamilton Junior Cup tournament. It’s for winning the A Division title. No big deal, right? What’s remarkable about that squad, however, was that two of its players are currently in the National Hockey League – Mark Jankowski of the Calgary Flames and Carter Verhaeghe of the Tampa Bay Lightning.
“It’s incredible we had a team with two future NHLers on it,” Kokoski said. “Having two guys make it to the top level from our small school is pretty cool.”
Junior high school hockey is for Grade 9 and 10 students. It’s annually held in March and April. Senior eligibility ranges from Grades 9 to 12 and runs from November to March.
Kokoski, who is entering his 15th year as a Crusaders coach, says Dundas resident Jankowski was a year older than Waterdown’s Verhaeghe. In addition to playing at the junior high school level, both also saw action for St. Mary in the Hamilton-Wentworth Catholic league.
“When Mark was in Grade 9, he was still a little guy (suiting up for senior and junior),” Kokoski said. “He was just excited to play. Every game he played like one of the older kids.”
Jankowski went through a growth spurt soon after, though, and eventually was drafted in the first round (21st overall) by the Flames. The 6-foot-3 forward attended Providence College in Rhode Island for four years and then, as an NHL rookie, stood out by scoring four goals in a game against the Vegas Golden Knights.
“When Carter played senior, he was in Grade 10,” Kokoski added. “He was a pretty big leader on our team that year.
“You could tell both Mark and Carter were special, even at a young age.”
A former captain of the OHL’s Niagara Ice Dogs, Verhaeghe was drafted in the third round (82nd overall) by the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2013. And last season he led Tampa Bay’s American Hockey League affiliate with 34 goals and 82 points.
A former St. Mary hockey player himself, Kokoski describes Jankowski and Verhaeghe as being receptive to coaching instructions. “They picked things up really quickly,” he said. “They were willing to do whatever the team needed. And I’m sure it was like that on every team they’ve played on.”
The Crusaders’ coach is proud to have contributed in any small way to the development of the two NHLers. “They go through a lot of coaches in their hockey careers, so maybe everybody chips in a little along the way,” he said.
According to Kokoski, junior tournaments are held to provide younger kids a chance to play with their friends and represent their school. “It’s more for school pride than trying to get noticed. It’s a personal thing.”
St. Mary has appeared in OFSAA tournaments four times in the past nine years, including the last three consecutive seasons at the A/AA level. Three years ago in Fort Frances, the Crusaders captured OFSAA silver.
The 2019-20 HWCAA hockey season began Wednesday with the Crusaders and Bishop Ryan Celtics skating to a 1-1 draw at Valley Park Arena.
Raine Hodge scored for St. Mary and Florian Xhekaj replied for Bishop Ryan. Those two teams have met in the league final in each of the last three years.
Source: Marnie Jadon