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Ethan Lavallee a monster hockey player in the making

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Peewee hockey player faces challenges being taller than most NHLers

If Ethan Lavallee lined up with the Maple Leafs for a picture he’d be in the back row. At six-foot-five-and-a-half, he would be the tallest player but one, centre David Steckel. At just 12 years of age, though, he’s a long way from the grinding game of the NHL.

Lavallee plays forward for the peewee AAA Nickel City Sons in the outskirts of Sudbury. He’s a top scorer on the team, which is ranked third overall in the competitive Ontario league, just behind the Mississauga Rebels and the Toronto Marlboros.

Lavallee is impossible to miss on the ice or the bench, rising head and shoulders above the other players and even his coaches. At tournaments, he routinely draws a crowd of gaping spectators.

He wears number 5, but not because he wanted that number, particularly. His favourite player, Eric Lindros, wore 88, after all.

“It was the biggest jersey,” says Lavallee in the matter-of-fact way of a kid used to his height deciding things in life for him. His jersey, a men’s XXL, fits perfectly.

It’s easy to see why he feels a kinship with the now-retired Lindros. As a teenage hockey phenom, Lindros was able to take advantage of his imposing size and strength to dominate players in minor hockey and on into his NHL career. But for Lavallee, playing in the first age-group where bodychecking is even allowed, his size is something to be wary of at all times for fear of drawing penalties or, worse still, hurting a much smaller opponent.

“He’s the 16-year-old playing out with the little kids, that’s what the comment always is,” says his dad, Jason Lavallee.

Given his advantages, it’s easy to wonder whether Lavallee will, in a few years, be touted as the next great thing in hockey.

Right now, he’s just a bundle of long-limbed potential. With his enormous stride, he’s always been fast and could find the back of the net, but he’s becoming an adept playmaker, too, says his coach, Dan Giroux. If he continues to develop his game, Giroux says, it won’t be long before junior teams start taking a look at this “unique player.”

Videos from the Toronto Star.

He’ll be eligible for the OHL in 2016, unless he’s exceptional enough to be granted a rare exemption and allowed in a year early as current hockey phenom 15-year-old Connor McDavid has just been.

If that day comes, Lavallee’s size will be a real asset. But, right now, being more than a foot taller than most players in peewee AAA and, at 192 pounds, heavier too, isn’t without considerable challenges.

First come the questions — “Is he really 12 years old?” — then, the problems. “He becomes a target,” says Giroux. “Being that big, a lot of kids want to say they knocked him down. He takes a lot of abuse from the fans and even other coaches. Any time he runs into a child they think he’s trying to kill them.”

Bodychecking has been banned at this level of hockey in the U.S. and Quebec but it’s allowed in Ontario. But, with increasing awareness about the dangers of concussions, any contact with a head leads to a two-minute spell in the penalty box. It’s four minutes if it’s deliberate.

“Sometimes I’ll hit, but whenever I hit I make sure I’m down low and never shoulder to head,” says Lavallee. And while the referees are watching Lavallee like a hawk, he’s watching out for the other players. “There are people gunning for me on the other teams,” he says.

It’s not just the players. Fans start shouting “head shot” and “goon, kick him out” at the drop of the puck and, if he ever falls, the other team’s fans “cheer like they just won the game,” says coach Giroux.

He’s been working with Lavallee on patience — he is only 12 after all — and ignoring taunts from players or the crowd. He’s learning that when he positions his body effectively, players just can’t get around him and he can scoop the puck and be off. “He doesn’t have to finish off the checks and see the kid fly 60 feet into the air,” Giroux says.

Coaches and parents on the regional teams who have long known Lavallee as the tall kid have come to appreciate how he plays, says his dad. He’s called the “gentle giant” and “parents are thankful for that.”

Lavallee started out on defence, naturally, because that’s where all the biggest players tend to be. Boston Bruins’ defenceman Zdeno Chara is the NHL’s tallest player at six-foot-nine. But Lavallee liked to score and when he switched to forward last year more of his game fell into place.

As he continues to improve, there will be increasing pressure for him to play with older kids. When he was 7, he played with 9-year-olds. Last season, he played up a year and “was scoring hat tricks,” says Mike Rocha, president of the Nickel City Hockey Association. Rocha thinks Lavallee should move up again.

But his coach and his mother aren’t so sure. “If he plays up, it’ll be bang, bang, bodycheck, bodycheck, but we want him to develop his skill level,” says Giroux. “There’s a lot more to the game.”

For Kelly-Anne Lavallee, keeping Ethan with his friends and age group in hockey is part of a constant battle the family wages to remember that, despite his towering height, he’s just a boy. She may be the one who puts her head on his shoulder but she’s still the one who does the comforting. She’s also the one who scours the racks at Mr. Big and Tall — hardly the outfitter of choice in grade 7 — looking for jeans that don’t announce the next flood.

Just like the rest of his team, and most young Canadian hockey players, Lavallee has NHL dreams.

“Unless,” he says, “I grow too tall and have to play basketball.” Lavallee could palm a basketball years ago, but until he moved to a bigger school this year that actually has a team, hockey was the only option for him. He’s looking forward to playing other sports but says hockey will “definitely” remain his priority.

To know his true potential as a hockey player, he needs to stop growing. His size, and the speed and slapshot he gets with it, is a real benefit to his game. But “constantly growing really doesn’t help,” he says.

“I get used to skating and then I grow one-and-a-half inches in one month and I kind of lose the feel for it,” Lavallee says.

His size 14 feet haven’t grown in a while so he’s hoping his growth spurt, steady since he was a baby, is coming to an end. His parents have crossed their fingers as well.

It’s an odd sensation to look up at your 12-year-old son, especially for a father who is six-foot-two himself. “We tell him it’s more good than bad,” says Jason Lavallee. “He takes it all in stride.”

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192 lbs

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I don't think he'll be amazing, he could turn out to be an NHLer one day though. Kids with size tend to excel in sports at a younger age but slow down when their peers catch up.

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I don't think he'll be amazing, he could turn out to be an NHLer one day though. Kids with size tend to excel in sports at a younger age but slow down when their peers catch up.

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Man, and I mean MAN if he learns to channel some intensity through his superior size he'd be a monster even against men. Then again, he could become another Steve Bernier (not quite power forward but still serviceable lower-level player, with inconsistencies in his intensity and skill level, if he doesn't learn to use his size properly). Who knows?

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At only 12, I wonder if he'll grow any more? He could end up 6'8" 220lbs by the time he's 20 which would be down right scary. Even as a 4th liner in the NHL, that size can do some damage. You can't teach size, and he's got another 5 or 6 years to develop NHL-level skill.

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Sean Day (D) is going to be the next player to get exceptional status, he plays for Compuware.

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This is a terrible story, but good for the kid i guess? There's several of stories where young kids around that age grow taller at that age, do well because they are twice the size of everyone else only to move on to the next step and get manhandled. So, this isn't new or out of ordinary at all. The question with him, will always be his speed. Right now, he's slow as hell but that's understandable, but in a year or two. If there isn't an significant improvement. Perhaps, he'll have to consider moving to Defense. It doesn't matter how tall you are, if you can't compete with the best.

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Did Pierre McGuire write this article by any chance? Note the use of the word "monster".

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Sean Day (D) is going to be the next player to get exceptional status, he plays for Compuware.

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Forgot the WHL drafts out of bantam, my bad

Still, 100pts in 21 games, and already 5'11", 180lbs

Hope Seattle gets him somehow. Him and Barzal would be a treat to watch

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It'll be Benson and Kale Clague for 1st overall in the Dub draft. Apparently they are neck and neck and it will come down to the teams needs (Giants?)

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