Anthony Cirelli will play for Canada for the first time when the world junior hockey championship begins on Boxing Day in Toronto and Montreal.
Not long ago, he wasn't considered good enough. Forget representing his country — the Woodbridge, Ont., native wasn't even deemed worthy of an OHL draft pick before cracking the lineup of the Oshawa Generals as a walk-on in the 2014-15 season.
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"It was really motivating for me, not being drafted in two OHL drafts. It's a tough pill to swallow," Cirelli says. "[Oshawa] gave me a chance and I just put my mind to it that I was going to work hard towards the [training] camp and just show them what I could do."
Hard work pays off
Cirelli credits Dan Noble for instilling that work ethic.
Noble is the director of athlete performance at The Hill Academy, an independent high school and training centre where the 6-foot-1, 184-pound Cirelli has spent the past couple of summers working out.
"[Dan] just says, 'Come to work every day and good things will happen' and that's what I kind of did," Cirelli says.
Cirelli's dedication caught the attention of Oshawa head coach D.J. Smith, who gave him the opportunity to centre the top line alongside New York Islanders prospect Michael Dal Colle for the majority of his rookie OHL season in 2014-15.
"It helped a lot, playing with a superstar like him, drafted fifth overall to the NHL. He kind of mentored me on and off the ice, so I just kind of followed him around to see what he did and how to act like a pro," Cirelli says.
Memorial Cup hero
Cirelli tallied 13 goals and 23 assists in 68 regular season games to go along with a plus-34 rating. He managed only two goals in the Memorial Cup tournament, but they couldn't have come at a better time.
In the championship game against Kelowna, Cirelli scored the tying goal and the winner in overtime to give the Generals a 2-1 victory and the franchise's fifth Memorial Cup title.
"That was an unbelievable feeling. I still get goosebumps when I re-watch it," Cirelli says. "It was an unbelievable year and to get those two goals just capped it off."
But Cirelli wasn't quite finished. A few weeks later, the Tampa Bay Lightning selected him in the third round of the NHL draft.
Cirelli was named captain of the Generals after Dal Colle was traded to the Kingston Frontenacs midway through the 2015-16 season.
"It's a huge honour whenever you have the opportunity to be captain of a team and I take pride in that," Cirelli says. "I just want to be one of the guys to lean on and help the young guys out like how I was taught by captains Josh Brown and Michael Dal Colle."
The 19-year-old Cirelli has led the Generals to first place in the OHL's Eastern Conference while topping the team in numerous offensive categories before leaving for Hockey Canada's selection camp for the world juniors.
Living the dream
Cirelli is one of five Lightning prospects to make this year's Canadian squad. He's happy to see some familiar faces from Lightning training camp and knows that having a feel for their tendencies and style of play is crucial in a short tournament.
But above all, he'll be fulfilling a dream when he takes to the ice on Boxing Day at Toronto's Air Canada Centre.
"I watch it year after year, and it's a huge honour to be playing in the tournament and representing the country," Cirelli says. For [the tournament] to be in Canada is something special. The Canadian fans are unbelievable."