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Just over a couple months ago, Dawson Mercer was living the dream.
He might not have been quite as heralded as some of his Canadian teammates, players like Alexis Lafreniere and Barrett Hayton, but there he was on the same bench, in the same dressing room and skating on the same ice as they were, this after the crafty forward from Bay Roberts had done enough at his first world junior training camp to convince Hockey Canada’s brass to select him for its entry at the 2020 IIIHF under-20 championship.
Mercer dressed for most of Canada’s starts at the world juniors in the Czech Republic — he was the team’s 13th forward throughout much of the tournament — but the needle hit max when he was on the ice for the gold-medal game, which saw the Canadians fashion a 4-3 come-from-behind win over Russia, delivering this country’s third world junior championship in the past six years.
If those were the best of times, this point in March might be among the worst for Mercer, who like his world junior teammates and hundreds of their junior-aged counterparts across the country, finds himself shut down.
All three outfits encompassing the Canadian Hockey League (CHL) — the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, Ontario Hockey League and Western Hockey League — have cancelled the remainder of their regular seasons because of the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic.
There is particular disappointment in Chicoutimi, Que., where the Sagueueens — Mercer’s team — have a 45-12-6 record, third-best in the QMJHL, putting them in a good position for a run at the league’s President’s Cup championship.
That’s if there are President’s Cup playdowns this season.
Chicoutimi hasn’t won a ‘Q’ title since 1994, and in the quest to end that drought, the Sags had adopted a “buy now, pay later” attitude during the QMJHL trade period, bringing in 10 new players — including Mercer — during December and early January, while for the most part, giving up future draft picks in return.
They paid the biggest price for the 18-year-old Mercer, sending five draft choices — two firsts, two seconds and a fourth-round pick — along with young forward William Dufour, to the Drummondville Voltigeurs, for whom the Newfoundlander had played two-and-a-half seasons.
“It’s gut-wrenching to think about what could happen … or not happen,” said Mercer. “I’m traded to a contending team, to a team that’s going to make a run for it, and then the league is putting everything on hold.
“I know none of us want to stop playing hockey now.”
Not only at stake is participation in the QMJHL playoffs, but also a possible berth in the Memorial Cup (CHL) championship that was to have been played in Kelowna, B.C., in May.
Mercer has 60 points, on 24 goals and 36 assists, in 42 overall games with Chicoutimi and Drummondville. That includes 18 points (6G, 12A) in 16 games with the Sagueneens, who have used him as a centre.
Both TSN’s Bob McKenzie and Sam Cosentino of Sportsnet have Mercer ranked to be chosen in the first round of the 2020 Draft in Montreal in June. What’s more, he’s been considered a rising prospect, one who could go in the top half — perhaps even in the top 10 — of the draft, which has Lafreniere as the consensus No. 1 overall pick.
Mercer is back home in Bay Roberts, and while there is no rink that is open to provide ice time during the shutdown, he is following an off-ice training program developed by the Sagueneens.
“If we start playing again, I want to keep proving that I’m a worthy (first-round) draft pick,” said Mercer. “I need to be ready, to get stronger, (so I’ll ) take this opportunity as an off-season to build strength.”
He’s also continuing to take online courses from Memorial University, something else to occupy his time and perhaps distract him from the possibility the season may never resume.
“It’s day by day,” said Mercer, “just waiting on information so see if we will be playing again.
“It’s the game we love and want to keep on playing. Having it put on pause right now is not the best feeling.
“(It’s) really dreary, especially when you have a contending team.”
If there is any positive, the time off is allowing Mercer to fully heal from an arm injury that kept him out of the Sagueneens’ last six games prior to cancellation of the remainder of the regular schedule. He said his being sidelined was a “precautionary” move in advance of an expected post-season that hasn’t yet arrived.
Today would have been the last day of the regular season. The playoffs should have started next week.
In the long term, Mercer is looking forward to when he might again contend for a place on Canada’s world junior team. Right now, however, he’s hoping there will be enough time left in this season for Chicoutimi to earn a league championship and for him to continue to impress NHL scouts.
“We’re all looking at this as time to recover, and if there are playoffs, we’ll be ready. We can make 100 per cent sure we’re ready to go,” he said.
Robin Short is The Telegram Sports Editor
He can be reached by email firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow him on Twitter @TelyRobinShort
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