One day, should Dane Fox fulfil his dream of playing in the National Hockey League, he might look back at his first hat trick in the junior ranks.
The third-year Ontario Hockey League centre took another step towards that lifelong goal on Jan. 29 when he was named an injury fill-in for the CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game, which was played Wednesday in Kelowna, and featured the top 40 NHL draft eligible players in the Canadian Hockey League.
Fox, 18, received the call less than 24 hours after scoring three times to lead the Erie Otters to a 7-4 win over the Wolves at the Sudbury Community Arena. His first hat trick in 128 OHL games helped the 6-37-4 Otters snap a 12-game losing streak.
A talented two-way forward, Fox has seven goals and 10 points in nine games since being acquired from the London Knights in a Jan. 5 trade. He was held off the scoresheet in Kelowna but was assessed a minor penalty for checking from behind early in the third period.
"I don’t take this game as an all-star game. It’s a tryout for the NHL," Fox, who is ranked 48th on NHL Central Scouting’s midterm ranking of North American skaters, said over the phone prior to Tuesday’s skills competition.
"I’m on a bit of a roll so … hope for the best, work hard [training] this summer and hopefully things turn out."
'I'm not going to take anything for granted. I want to give my team some momentum and energy and play at a high level of intensity.' — Dane Fox on his game plan for the CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game
Fox skated for Team Cherry — co-coached by former NHL winger Mark Recchi — before more than 250 NHL personnel including general managers and directors of scouting. Fox's Otters teammate Adam Pelech patrolled the Team Orr blue-line.
Fox, who hails from Thamesville, Ont., said being surrounded by a group of leaders and highly skilled prospects compared to 14 rookies in the Erie lineup took some pressure away from such an important game.
"It's an opportunity to show [the scouts] what I’ve got. I just worry about my game and the draft will handle itself," said Fox, who participated in the Showdown Breakaway Contest at the skills competition.
Fox was one of eight injury replacements for Wednesday’s contest, as several premium prospects including top-ranked Nail Yakupov of the OHL’s Sarnia Sting, didn't suit up due to various ailments.
However, seven of the top 11 skaters on Central Scouting’s mid-term rankings played, including Quebec Remparts forward Mikhail Grigorenko (No. 2), Everett Silvertips defenceman Ryan Murray (No. 3) and Kitchener Rangers forward Radek Faksa (No. 4).
Erie GM Sherry Bassin made the trip to Kelowna and was anxious to see how his players fared, in particular the six-foot, 185-pound Fox, who has played a physical game and displayed a good shot since joining the Otters.
The longtime OHL GM attempted to trade for Fox in October but was rebuffed by Knights GM Mark Hunter, who wasn’t interested in Bassin’s offer of primarily draft picks.
"I went to a game in Guelph [in the first two weeks of the season]," Bassin said, "and every time [London] had a power play, they had [Fox] at the point, had him at forward, had him at different positions because of how he could help the team."
Bassin waited until Hunter showed interest in centre Greg McKegg, a 2010 Toronto Maple Leafs draft pick, and then told him Fox would have to be part of any trade. A deal was struck on Jan. 5, with the rebuilding Otters picking up Fox, defenceman Troy Donnay, Sudbury’s second-round pick in 2012 and London’s second-round pick in 2016 for McKegg goalie Tyson Teichmann and defenceman Brett Cook.
"It’s one of those deals that’s good for everybody. We gave them a real good player," said Bassin of McKegg, who had 11 goals, 22 points and a plus-eight rating in 11 games with London through Jan. 31. "We wanted a guy who could take us where we want to be [an OHL champion and Memorial Cup contender] and we feel [Fox] is the guy who can do it."
That point was reinforced in Sudbury, Bassin said, when Fox exhibited the leadership qualities that London was asking the youngster to add to his game this season. With Erie up 3-0, he scored midway through the second period and made it a 5-2 game early in the third. After the Wolves scored two quick goals to make it 5-4, Erie answered and then Fox added an empty net goal with 13.7 seconds left.
"Here we are, on the road and starting our 16-year-old goalie [Devin Williams] for the first time, and [Fox] showed his leadership by getting after it," said Bassin. "He was determined we were going to win that game and, by his conduct he said, ‘I need to get some goals and lead this team,’ and he went out and battled.
"We had lost a lot of close games [leading up to the Sudbury matchup] and he said to me: ‘Sherry, we’re going to turn this around. We’re on our way and we’re going to be something.’ He’s going to be the leader I expect of him, too.
"What’s good about him is he makes the other players with him better," Bassin added, "and it’s not just his ability to score. He sees the ice well and can handle the puck. Those things are tough to teach."
Fox said the confidence shown in him by Otters head coach Robbie Ftorek and his staff along with Bassin has helped him not to be afraid to make mistakes.
"Since I’ve been [in Erie] the guys have competed night in and night out," Fox said. "I couldn’t ask for a better group of young guys to be around. Hopefully I can lead by example and lead this team to success."
Fox has 21 regular-season games to get the Otters headed in the right direction.