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BIG READ: How Stamkos's, Perry's Minor Hockey Days Created Hometown Heroes

By Mitchell Machtinger, 07/04/22, 10:30AM EDT


Former minor hockey teammates, coaches reflect on what made pair so special

They didn’t quite get the chance to hoist the Stanley Cup this year, but the Tampa Bay Lightning were contenders thanks in large part to two Ontario Minor League Association (OMHA) alumni. Winning at every level is nothing new to Steven Stamkos and Corey Perry. Both were champions in the OMHA, top picks in the Ontario Hockey League and NHL Drafts, and World Juniors gold medallists. Each also have their name engraved on the Stanley Cup.

Unfortunately for them, the Tampa Bay Lightning lost in a thrilling six-game series. The result of the 2022 Stanley Cup Finals means that Perry left the Finals as the first person in history to ever lose three Stanley Cups in a row. Remarkably, he did that as a key member of three different teams, Tampa Bay, Montreal and Dallas. Stamkos came up just short in his bid to win his third consecutive championship. 

In the midst of continuing to establish the Lightning as a modern-day dynasty in the salary cap era, both players find themselves at differing stages of their illustrious careers. Stamkos, the all-star captain, is showing no signs of slowing down. Perry, the grizzled veteran, is likely entering the final years of his playing days.

This isn’t the first time the duo have been teammates. They shared the same jersey as members of the 2010 Olympic and 2016 World Cup of Hockey gold medal winning teams.

While their paths did not cross during their times in the OMHA in terms of on-ice battles, both came from humble beginnings playing minor hockey in their hometowns, slowly getting noticed in rinks around the province. Today, they reflect proudly of their roots, remaining close with the ones who were there to see their development first-hand.

The 2000-01 Markham Waxers - U10 AAA OMHA Champions.

Those who grew up with Stamkos seem to have their own stories that stand out the most upon reflection.

Growing up in Markham, Ontario, the two-time Stanley Cup champion made himself be prominent amongst his peers from an early age.

At four years old, Stamkos played in house league with those up to two years his senior. At the age of six, he already stood out on a Markham Waxers AA team comprised of eight-year olds. From there, he moved on to the AAA league and never looked back.

“High energy. Super outgoing and happy. Unbelievably talented. Gifted at many sports,” said his AAA coach Paul Titanic. “He was a pleasure to be around.”

“At 8 or 9 you could see he was an exceptional hockey player,” said Stamkos’s former teammate Matt Maione. “His shot, he’s always had that knack of being able to score. What really set him apart at a young age was him thinking the game… Things seemed to come a little bit easier to him than to other players.”

Stamkos’s competitive nature and work ethic stood out and were noticed by his teammates. Perhaps few know this better than his ex-linemate Kelly Geoffrey.

“It was pretty awesome to play with him. He knew things and where to put you and tell you where to be before draws, and he would just snap it and it would happen exactly how he told you. You start to get less and less surprised about it and just go with it.”

He recalls a story in their later years of minor hockey where the team was practicing against some older players, including some fresh out of junior.

It was a quick awakening to the talent that ‘Stammer’ possessed, the nickname his friends still call him to this day.

“It took them about five seconds with Stammer out on the ice that they’d realize they can’t just joke around. He was better than them when he was 13 and they were 25 and just finished playing in the OHL.”

From L-R: David Titanic (front), Jonny Simone (back), Kelly Geoffrey, Matt Maione, Clayton McCaw, Stamkos and Jeff Vanderluget after winning an OMHA Championship.

Titanic says Stamkos was a player he could use in any situation as a coach. His ‘contagious spirit’ made everyone around him better. That led to Stamkos serving as either Assistant Captain or Captain on the majority of his Waxers teams.

“He wants other players to do well. He’s genuinely happy for people... In practices he would push himself so hard that you had to follow.”

Titanic’s son David was a player on those teams and also felt that energy from Stamkos.

Whether it was in the OMHA Championships against Richmond Hill, where Stamkos helped to claw the team to victory, or in the Silver Stick quarterfinal win where he erased a 5-1 deficit in the third period by scoring a quintet of goals in the game, it was always Stamkos who took it upon himself.

“When we used to get down a couple goals, there was absolutely no doubt about who would lead the charge as far as bringing us back into games,” said David Titanic. “It was almost like he could find another gear to play at. That shows you his leadership on the ice and how hungry and determined he was and how everybody fed off that.”

That group of Waxers boasts five players who have suited up in the NHL at one point or another – Stamkos, Michael Del Zotto, Cameron Gaunce, Cody Hodgson and Jamie Doornbosch.

During the summers, Stamkos also enjoyed playing baseball and soccer. His athletic prowess wasn’t just limited to the ice.

“He was just so naturally talented at everything,” recalled Geoffrey. “Lacrosse isn’t necessarily the easiest game to just pick up but within a couple weeks he was arguably one of the best players in Markham.”

For someone who has been at the top of his class wherever he’s gone – first overall OHL and NHL draft pick, gold medallist, all-star, captain – Stamkos has never let it get to his head.

David Titanic was classmates with Stamkos around the time he was set to be chosen by the Lightning. He came across what he described as an eye-opening experience that showed Stamkos never truly forgot where he came from. 

“A Grade 9 student rolled into class and said ‘Mr. Steven, can you sign this for me?’ Without hesitation, he treats the kid super nicely and signed whatever it was.”

When Stamkos won his first Stanley Cup, he brought the trophy back to Markham and coordinated a day for the entire group of current Waxers to share the experience with him. Set up outside Crosby Memorial Community Centre, the players were invited to take pictures with him and the Cup.

Stamkos and Del Zotto after winning the U16 AAA Championship ahead of their OHL Draft.

The 2004-05 Markham Waxers - U15 AAA OMHA Champions.

“It took him a whole day and a lot of time out of his schedule. There’s only a limited time that you get with the Cup, and I think it shows you that he remembers where he came from and still treats people back in the community very well,” said Titanic. “It’s a good lesson for younger players. Even if you’re at the top, you need to remember your roots.”

“The amount of times he’s donated his time or autographs for charity events… I’ve seen him out and about, and he’s so gracious with his time with people around town. He’s always been like that, too,” echoed Geoffrey. “When we were kids, people did kind of have an idea of who he was when he was young. You think a lot of times that might go to someone’s head but he’s never really changed in that way.”

Bringing the Cup back home allowed Stamkos to catch up with some of his former teammates, who were invited to celebrate at a private party later in the day.

“It’s always nice to have that relationship and that special bond that we did playing all those years together, all of us,” said Maione. “It’s literally lifelong. All the tournaments we won, all the different things that we overcame together.”

“They don’t see each other all the time,” said Titanic. “If Steven sees David or Matt, it’s just like old times for sure. They just put so much time in together, I think the bond of doing so well makes you want to remember those times.”

Just like with the Waxers, Stamkos’s one constant has been the Lightning. It’s the only team he’s known for his entire professional career. Geoffrey says Stamkos still talks about his days with the Waxers glowingly and can’t help but see the similarities between the two clubs.

“To me, Stammer’s just turning the Lightning into his own Waxers team again. I think it’s pretty cool and he’s not even done. He’s only getting better.”

Stamkos on the cover of the 2002-03 OMHA Manual of Operations.

Perry at the OMHA U17 Program of Excellence Camp.

Corey Perry has gotten under the skin of enough opponents over the years to be given the nickname ‘The Worm’.

Known as ‘CP’ to those who grew up with him in Peterborough, Ontario, his minor hockey teammates describe him as the reverse - a quieter member of the locker room who generally kept to himself.

“Completely opposite. He’s more of a shy, quiet dude outside of the arena,” said Tim Fish, who would carpool with Perry to games.

Being the goalie on the Peterborough Minor Petes meant Mike Rochetta saw first-hand exactly what Perry brought on the ice.

He thinks Perry’s hometown is reflected in his playing style.

“He plays the Peterborough game. He’s not afraid of mixing it up,” said Rochetta. “We all grew up that way whether it was playing lacrosse or hockey, that’s just the way we played. He was skilled but wasn’t afraid to grind. I think that’s just the game that all Peterborough players develop.”

Perry was a gifted player, but those who played minor hockey with him say what stood out most was the speed at which he could work with his hands when the puck was on his stick.

“He could pass the puck and he could definitely finish. He was just a competitor and a gamer,” said Cory Vitarelli, who was also his linemate. “He scored lots of big goals and he made my job and (fellow linemate Mike Moher’s) easier.”

“He was an offensive threat every time he was on the ice. He had a stick skill that not many people have at that age,” said Mark Vitarelli, Cory’s dad and the coach of the team. “You knew early on that he was going to be a pure goal scorer, as they call them. He was always in the middle of havoc the way he is today. It’s interesting when you look back.”

Rochetta remembers a goal where Perry purposely shot the puck off the opposing goalie’s pad because he knew the rebound would deflect to Vitarelli’s stick to bury in the net.

“The play was just a Corey Perry play. He forecasted what was going to happen and sees things that other people don’t see,” Rochetta said.

Perry and the Minor Petes after winning an OMHA Championship.

While a deep team, that line was key to the Minor Petes finding success on the ice as they captured the OMHA Championship in their U15 year and went on to win the OHL Cup later that season. (Note: Prior to 2003, the OHL Cup was awarded to the U15 champions. The tournament is now for U16 teams.)

It wouldn’t take long for Perry to capture another Championship, winning the OHL title with the London Knights.

Perry’s first brush with glory came at a young age, just as he started getting into minor hockey.

When the Montreal Canadiens won the Stanley Cup in 1993 the trophy was brought to Perry’s school as part of the celebration. It’s what led Perry to become a Habs fan, and playing on that team become a childhood dream that came to fruition when he signed a one-year deal with the team for the 2020-21 season.

“I assume that’s part of the reason why he went there…,” said Cory Vitarelli, called ‘Dog’ as to not mix up the two Coreys on the team. “The Canadian market, probably for him, just to be close to home as well. Obviously, the success that he and the Canadiens had, coming that close to the Stanley Cup.”

At just a five-hour drive from Peterborough, Montreal is by far the closest Perry’s ever played to his hometown, compared to his stops in Anaheim, Dallas and Tampa Bay.

“I think it meant a lot to him because he was a fan but also to be back close to home where his friends and family could get to him and watch him play…,” said his coach Mark Vitarelli. “For this area, for a Peterborough kid to be able to be on TV all the time, was pretty special.”

The impact of seeing the Cup in person as a kid set an example for Perry, who followed a similar path of paying it forward after he won with the Anaheim Ducks in 2007.

His celebration took place at the Memorial Centre for the local fans to join in the festivities. From there, he had a private party before heading to London to bring the Cup to his former junior team.

It almost didn’t happen that way.

“There was a fairly bad accident that day. The 401 was shut down around Guelph,” recalled Rochetta. “We were waiting for a police escort to come get us out of the lineup of traffic. There was a youngster out there and he looked up at the bus and saw the Cup, so Corey actually grabbed the Cup and went out to the middle of the 401 to show this kid the Cup. That says what kind of guy he is.”

Perry is only the second player (joining Scott Niedermayer) of hockey’s Triple Gold club (Olympic gold, World Championship and Stanley Cup) to add the combination of winning at the World Junior Championships, Memorial Cup, and World Cup of Hockey as well.

“He’s just a born winner. He knows how to win,” said Fish. “He knows what to do to get under the skin of the other team or draw penalties, like he still does to this day.”

As he finishes his 17th NHL season, Perry still has one year remaining on his contract.

“His longevity is something to admire. Lots of people that play that length of time in any league, it’s just to stay healthy,” said Mark Vitarelli. “He’s managed to do that and be in the middle of a lot of stuff going on. He’s a very smart player.”

Like Stamkos, Perry continues to make his mark on the NHL. But those early days in minor hockey gave us a glimpse into the future.

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