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Mark Masters

SPORTSCENTRE Reporter

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Earlier this year, Dawson Mercer became just the third Newfoundlander to win a gold medal at the World Juniors joining Dwayne Norris and John Slaney on that exclusive list. Mercer, who played a fourth-line role for Team Canada, was greeted as a conquering hero when he returned home from the Czech Republic.

The Chicoutimi Sagueneens winger dropped the puck at a ceremonial faceoff at a couple of games in his tiny hometown of Bay Roberts. He was even asked by a Grade 1 student to come to her class at Coley's Point Primary for Show and Tell.

"I was wondering if she was joking and she was dead serious," Mercer recalled with a smile.

Mercer attended that same school and was taught by the same teacher. Now, he's about to graduate to the National Hockey League. Mercer is No. 10 on NHL Central Scouting's list of North American skaters and No. 17 in TSN Director of Scouting Craig Button's latest prospect rankings.

O​nly six players from Newfoundland have been picked in the first round of the NHL draft: Keith Brown (No. 7 overall in 1979), Terry Ryan (No. 8 in 1985), Slaney (No. 9 in 1990), Daniel Cleary (13th in 1997), Alex Newhook (13th in 2019) and Brad Brown (18th in 1994).

"There's not many guys drafted from here who have played on the big stage so to be the next guy making the step [is] really special," Mercer said. "It's a cool thing to be from Newfoundland and be the 'Next One,' because unlike other places there's not a continuous cycle of new players."

Mercer's determination, a trademark of his game, was on full display this year. ​After not getting invited to Hockey Canada's summer camp, Mercer entered the season flying under the radar. But he started strong and defied the odds to crack the World Junior roster. In the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, he finished with 60 points in 42 games and was nominated for the Michael Bossy Award, which is given to the league's top professional prospect. Rimouski's Alexis Lafreniere, the projected top pick in the draft, eventually took home that honour.

TSN spoke to Mercer via Zoom this week to reflect on his roots and how far he's come. Mercer, who stands 6-foot, 180 pounds, explained why Patrice Bergeron is his hockey role model and revealed the key piece of advice Cleary has passed along. The following is an edited transcript of the interview.

How would you describe the sports culture in Newfoundland?

"They love hockey here. Even with the travel, [leagues] always bring teams back. We've had American Hockey League teams, ECHL teams and a team always keeps coming back because of the passion we have for hockey. I have a lot of supporters here reaching out and wishing me well. Having that support is important, because so much goes into making a hockey player. We're moving away and training all the time and when they support you and keep on pushing you, it's a good feeling."

Former Detroit Red Wing Danny Cleary lives close to Bay Roberts. How would you describe his impact on Newfoundland's sports scene and you personally?

"He's a big part of it. He brought the Stanley Cup here and I remember being down there on the side of the street watching him drive by with the Cup. Just to be watching that and see him accomplish that goal being from Newfoundland, as a young kid I was thinking I could do the same. It was special. It was a big thing because not many of us make it on the big stage. He was one and I want to be another player that can show that to the young kids in my province."

What advice have you received from Cleary?

"He just tells me to be a good kid. He says, 'You have to be a good person, first of all, and then just work on your game.' He said, 'Just keep on improving and not just the aspects you think you need to improve, but your good aspects as well, keep elevating your game. Be proud of what you've done and show up to the rink with a smile on your face every day.'"

What did you learn from the World Juniors experience? You didn’t play as much as you're used to, but just making the squad was a big accomplishment.

"Like you said, I didn't have the same role that I did in the Q, but that showed the variety in my game. I can be a top-end guy, but I want to be more versatile. I showed I could be the same person and not affect my teammates in a negative way. I was motivated to make sure they were playing their best and at their top level. Inside, of course, I wanted to go out there and play more, but in short tournaments you need to have players in different roles and I was willing to do anything for my country to win gold. Hockey Canada is a world-class organization and I was just honoured and privileged to make that team and enjoy that experience." 

What are the interviews with NHL teams like?

"It's a little different than it would've been at the combine. I've had lots of calls like this over Zoom. The calls have been coming in every week and it's cool, but I'd love it to be in person. I communicate well. I try and turn it into a talk like I've known them for like three years and I speak freely and answer all questions the best I can and as honestly as I can. I want to make sure they know exactly who I am so when they draft me and I show up to camp they have no question marks and they know what I'm all about."

You were nominated for the Paul Dumont Trophy as 'Personality of the Year’ in the QMJHL. How would you describe your personality? 

"I want to be as good of a person as I can. If you're friends with everyone and have good relationships with others that makes you improve as a player much more and also helps them. I want to make sure the person next to me in the dressing room, I'm pushing them to be better so he's pushing me the same way. Being a good person will improve you as a hockey player."

Lafreniere ended up winning the Paul Dumont Trophy. You were his teammate at the World Juniors and played against him a few times in the QMJHL - what stands out the most about him?

"He's a real class act. He's a real competitor and has all the talent to be a pro player. As a teammate, he's a good guy and good leader and when you're against him you can't give him too much time and space. He's always so dangerous with or without the puck. When the puck is on the way to his stick he knows what play is going to happen a couple steps ahead. Whoever gets him in the draft will be lucky."

Trades can be tough. What was the transition like going from Drummondville to Chicoutimi?

"I felt like it was good. I left for Canada's camp with Drummondville and then got traded right after the World Juniors. The first time I had the Chicoutimi jersey on was at the Top Prospects Game in the practice there. I flew back and played a game that night, got a couple teeth knocked out in my first game, that was my welcome moment in Chicoutimi (smile). But it was good. We had a lot of new guys come in and everyone welcomed us there. I enjoyed playing with those guys, same as in Drummondville."

Your points per game decreased a bit after the move. You had 42 points in 26 games with Drummondville (1.62 per game) and then 18 in 16 games with Chicoutimi (1.12 per). Was that because of the adjustment period?

"You can see the point difference, but I didn't let that affect my game. The points will come sometimes and sometimes they won't so I was just staying on the same path of improving every day. Our goal was to win. I want to be a winner. I would've loved for the playoffs to have taken place. When I got there, my focus was on improving so when playoff time came we were ready."

Any sense when you'll be picked in the draft?

"I don't think the number matters as much. Whatever team wants you the most is the team you're going to go to and when they draft you it will be a special feeling. You realize the draft is a special moment, but also only a small stepping stone with all the work that has to come to be a full-time player and to win the Stanley Cup."

Who's your NHL role model?

"I would say Patrice Bergeron. He's an all-around, two-way guy and if I can model my game after him and be a player like that then I can have a real impact in the NHL. Down in my basement, I have his jersey on the wall and that's the only NHL jersey I have. As a kid, I watched him closely. He can play well offensively, be a PP guy, score goals, really skillful, but at the same time he can be the guy taking faceoffs late in the game, being sound defensively and a great leader. He's a real good role model."

Do you have a favourite Bergeron moment or game?

"The big one is the time they came back on the Leafs in the last game of the series in the [2013] playoffs. He was a main aspect in that. That was a cool moment and special to see him do that."

What's life like for you these days?

"I'm very fortunate on the training side of it, because I have all the equipment I need. My uncle owns a gym so I've been on track with my full summer training and using it as a positive, because I have an extra two months to build strength. I'm from a small town so when I first got home I was skidooing, snowboarding, snowshoeing, just having fun like when I was a kid. Now with the snow melted I'm on the bike and rollerblading and playing 21 basketball with my brother and making sure I'm focused on hockey, but enjoying time with my family.

Your younger brother Riley, a goalie, is a prospect in the upcoming QMJHL bantam draft. What's the sibling rivalry like?

"We're pretty competitive. He's a big guy, bigger than me now. He's grown and is now 6-foot-1 and has 15 pounds on me. We train together and get competitive and he pushes me. I have a younger sister who plays AAA hockey here in Newfoundland also so it's competitive. We go at it."

What's the scouting report on Riley?

"He's got that big frame and is good reading plays so he has the mind for the game. We'll head out on the driveway and he puts on his full equipment and I get to rip pucks at him so I'm benefitting and he's working on rebound control so we're working together."