Veleno patiently awaiting draft experience

Aaron Vickers2018 Draft Center, QMJHL

Joseph Veleno can still pinpoint the moment.

At the tail end of a workout nearly 14 months ago, his mom burst into the gym.

The rest is history.

“She came screaming in. “Joe! You got it! You got it!’” recounted Veleno. “Everyone in the gym froze for a second. Then everyone went back to work.

“I finished the workout. I was just kind of chilling there.

“I was really excited. I started calling my friends and family and the news started to spread on social media. I was the happiest kid in the world at the time.”

He still is, it seems.

The notion, which saw Veleno promptly selected first overall by the Saint John Sea Dogs in the 2015 QMJHL Entry Draft two days later, set the 15-year-old’s hockey career in motion.

He became the first Quebec-born player to be granted exceptional status by Hockey Canada, and joined John Tavares and Connor McDavid as the only forwards to be given the designation, and early entry into major junior. Tavares and McDavid, as well as defensemen Aaron Ekblad and Sean Day, joined the Ontario Hockey League at the age of 15.

Tavares, in 2008, Ekblad, in 2014, and McDavid, in 2015, went on to be selected first overall in their respective NHL Drafts.

Exceptional status almost passed Veleno by, though.

He was no lock to receive it.

“It was a long process, first of all,” he said. “We had a lot of things we had to go through…paperwork and all sorts of things. Hockey Quebec and Hockey Canada put a lot of work into that. I’m very grateful for that. I’m not 100 percent sure what happened with the whole process, but I’m very honored to be granted the exceptional status. I know a lot of people stepped up in the process and put in a lot of work. I’m very grateful for it.

“It was something I really wanted and was really looking forward to it. I was hoping to get it after all the hard work, the essay and all the paperwork. It was fun. It was a little weird. You’re doing essays in May, June, July when you’re off for school. It was something I really wanted. I put a lot of work into that and so did a lot of people. I’m grateful for that.”

The early returns on the decision look promising.

Veleno had 13 goals and 43 points in 62 games in his first season with Saint John — 10th overall amongst rookies in the QMJHL.

He also made Canada’s entry at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Cup in early August, the youngest player and only 2000-born player to suit up in the tournament for the team.

With those experiences, the now 16-year-old is set for an even bigger role with the Sea Dogs in 2016-17.

But the long-range plan is the 2018 NHL Draft.

Veleno, at this stage, is a strong candidate to be the first overall pick.

He’s ready for the challenge on the ice. And off.

And another moment he’ll not soon forget.

“I think it can be a little overwhelming,” he said. “There’s going to be media everywhere you go and all the little things you do, there’s going to be people watching. I’m just going to be true to myself and think of what I have to do and not really focus on that kind of stuff.

“I think I’ll be able to handle it.”