Cole Perfetti was among those cut at Canada's final World Junior selection camp in December. He felt like he performed well, but acknowledged it was tough to stand out in a short camp featuring top talent. And it's especially tough for draft-eligible players to make the squad.
Still, it hurt.
"Definitely stings," he said, "and then seeing them go on to win, it stung a little bit extra knowing I was so close to a gold medal."
Perfetti channeled his emotions the right way upon returning to the OHL’s Saginaw Spirit, piling up 27 points in the next 12 games.
"I used that as motivation to prove to Hockey Canada that I could've been an impact player. I could've made a difference and could've helped the team," he said. "I tried to think about that every game and use that to fuel the fire and it really worked for the remainder of the season. After the World Juniors is really when I started elevating my game; my game took off and the points started coming and I started playing much better and with more confidence. It sucks to be cut, but it turned my season around."
Perfetti produced 66 points in 32 games after the World Junior camp. It’s not the first time the forward used outside voices to jumpstart his game. At 5-foot-10 and 180 pounds, the kid from Whitby, Ont., sometimes feels overlooked.
"I've never been the biggest or the fastest guy and the critics always talked about those points. I've always tried to prove them wrong with other assets of my game," the 18-year-old said. "My playmaking and my hockey IQ, I try to use those to the best of my ability and try and prove to the critics and people that have doubted me that I am still a great player."
While some players try to avoid seeing negative coverage, Perfetti actually welcomes it.
"I kind of like seeing when people doubt me," he said. "I try and use it as motivation and try to shove it back to them. It's been working so far, and World Juniors was a great example of that. And throughout this entire draft year people have been talking and there's been a lot of critics saying things. I've played to my fullest potential and gave it back to them."
Perfetti may not be able to rely on that motivational tactic much longer, because there are fewer and fewer people questioning his talent. In the latest Craig's List, a compilation of top prospects by TSN director of scouting Craig Button, Perfetti ranked No. 4.
"Perfetti's hockey IQ is off the charts," Button said. "He's brilliant in every way. He won't catch your eye with a lot of flash, but he has tremendous substance."
The Ontario Hockey League coaches heaped praise on Perfetti in their annual poll as he came in first in four Western Conference categories including best playmaker, best stickhandler, best shootout shooter and smartest player.
"There's no doubt he's earned that spot," said Erie defenceman Jamie Drysdale, who was the runner-up in the smartest player category. "Every time that guy touches the puck something happens. He always makes the smart, right play. He sees plays that the average player wouldn't see. When he's on the half-wall on the power play, he'll find literally any seam."
TSN spoke to Perfetti via Skype this week. He explained why his assist total surged this season and how he maintains his high hockey IQ. The following is an edited transcript of the interview.
You finished second in OHL scoring with 111 points in 61 games. What are you most proud of about your season?
"It was a good year. I accomplished what I wanted to do and made a name for myself. But the thing I was really proud of was the team success that we had. Another long playoff run is what we were hoping for and, obviously, due to circumstances that's not allowed, but we had a great team. We made trades at the deadline and not a lot of kids get to do that twice in their OHL career, be on a team that's had enough success to go for it. Being able to be a contributor on both those teams, it feels good and it's an honour."
You earned the nickname "Goal" Perfetti for your shootout heroics in last year's Hlinka Gretzky Cup. This season you produced 37 goals, matching last year's OHL total, but you doubled your assist count. What happened?
"I think a lot of it comes with confidence – getting older in the league and younger guys start coming in you get a little more confidence and you become stronger and become more of a dominant force. I had a pretty good rookie year and then over the summer I trained really hard ... and the confidence I had was through the roof compared to last year. I wasn't as scared to make plays or go outside my comfort zone and it really paid off this year."
Where does your high hockey IQ come from? Do you watch a lot of hockey?
"I do watch a lot of hockey. The NHL Network is always on in the house and the games are always on and I always watch on YouTube the recaps of the games the night before and stuff like that. A lot of it, I think, comes from watching a lot of hockey and some of it is a little bit natural. Most of it comes from being a rink rat and watching the game constantly and picking up on little things that certain players do that I can implement into my game and use to make me a better player."
Who do you like watching the most?
"I don't have a favourite team, but players, guys who stick out are obviously Sidney Crosby and [Connor] McDavid with his speed. Guys like [Auston] Matthews and [Mitch] Marner being so young but being so dominant, it's pretty cool to watch guys like that play and what they bring to the table. Every night you're going to see something different and they're really going to put on a show, so it's exciting watching those guys."
How do you deal with guys who try and take advantage of your size?
"I'm not the kind of guy who's going to go out and fight and drop the gloves, but no one is going to take liberties on me. This year, I saw a lot of teams that had certain players that were kind of designated to go after me – not go after me, but make sure I had no time and space and get in my grill and get me off my game a little bit, and there were multiple occasions when guys were taking liberties with me and the refs weren't stepping in so I had to stick up for myself a little bit. I'm not the kind of guy who's going to fight, but I'm going to let the people know that I'm not a walkover. I'm not a pushover."
The NHL draft combine has been postponed. Were you looking forward to that or do you sort of not mind that it might not happen?
"The combine is something I've kind of been looking forward to my entire life. It's a once-in-a-lifetime experience and not a lot of kids get to do that. There are only 100 kids each year that get to participate in the combine and it’s a real honour to be chosen for it. It's a spot for you to show not only your athletic ability, but your personality. The interviews you have at the combine are priceless and they go a long way and can help you and make or break it for a team. The experiences that come from the combine are crucial and vital not only for hockey, but for becoming a mature person and growing up. Those things you have to go through at the combine, the hard work, the perseverance and the adversity with comes with it, is going to make you a better person in the long run. It's always something I looked forward to and kept an eye on the past couple years. I'm hoping it still happens and our group doesn't miss out on the opportunity."
What would be your best event at the combine?
"The bike stuff probably. I'm not the best jumper, so the bike I'd probably do pretty well. It's not really an event, but I think the interviews are what I'd do the best at. My personality and communication skills would be my best attribute at the combine and really show who I am. I'd make an impact that way."
I know you’ve done some phone interviews. Is it hard to make the same impact and have your personality come through over the phone?
"Yeah, obviously it's not as easy to portray your personality over the phone. It's easier face-to-face. You can read off the other person. But on the phone, you still get a lot of good information and these phone calls have been important to me. It's nice to have them with the season not going on and the draft (date) up in the air. It's nice to know teams are still working and interested in you. It gives you that little bit of extra motivation when I'm working out. Teams are interested and they want me so it's enlightening and motivating during this stretch."
Do you prep for the calls? Like, will you research the team that is calling?
"I'm kind of more of a go-with-the-flow, off-the-top-of-my-head kind of guy. I tried preparing for one and I didn't think it flowed as nicely as it does when I'm spontaneous and I can react to the questions as they come. I don't need to prepare for the questions, because I have a good background on most teams in the NHL and I think I can really understand what they're talking about."
Retired NHLer Kris Draper is a family friend. What is the best advice he has given you?
"We've known the family for a long time, and I've had many conversations with him over the years. I had a recent conversation with him and one thing he said was, 'Even though times are tough right now, not getting in the gym and stuff, there's going to be other kids around the world working harder than you, and they'll be wanting it more.' So, he told me to have the mindset to be the best and work the hardest and everything will take care of itself. My play on the ice will take care of itself as long as I'm competing the hardest and being the hardest-working guy – especially in this period of time with the circumstances the way they are."
What's your average day look like right now?
"Right now, getting up, getting some breakfast and been helping the parents around the house a lot, cleaning. There's been a lot of cleaning: the basement, the backyard, the garage, my room, it's looking pretty good right now. Then I'm usually taking the net to the tennis courts and shooting there. I'm just building a shooting pad in my backyard now. Then I usually go for a run or workout and then we have the whole family at home and we're eating dinner together and then playing board games at night or I'm hopping on PS4 and playing with the guys and keeping up with them that way and having chats with the guys."
What is your favourite memory this season?
"I don't have an individual favourite memory. I think coming to the rink every day with the guys, this was the closest team I've ever been on. You know, it's a cliché thing to say, but I was excited to come to the rink every day and wanted to come and practise and hang out with the guys until 5, 6 p.m. at the rink just because of the group we had and how close we were. We had the fine line of making fun of each other, but having each other's backs and still being brothers. Some of the stuff that happened this year not a lot of teams go through and we went through it together. Through thick and thin, we were definitely the closest team I've ever seen. I was really lucky to be a part of it. Every day, every road trip, every hotel, there was something new that added to the collection and added to the memories. All those add up to a great second year in the OHL for me."