The sports world has taken a beating as the COVID-19 outbreak widened across the planet. In addition to all professional sports leagues suspending play as part of the ongoing effort to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus, closer to home the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) likewise elected to cancel the remainder of its season.
That decision had a direct impact on Mistissini’s Israel Mianscum, who saw his first season of major junior hockey abruptly ended by the shutdown. If seeing his debut with the Sherbrooke Phoenix cut short was not bad enough, the thought of what could have been brings no comfort.
A consistent presence atop the Canadian Hockey League (CHL) rankings since the start of the season, the Phoenix had emerged as a favourite to represent the QMJHL at the Memorial Cup – especially during the 13-game winning streak they rode into the season-ending shutdown.
While losing a shot at a Memorial Cup title comes as a massive disappointment, it is far from the end of the hockey road for Mianscum. Indeed, it is just the beginning.
It has been a busy year for Mianscum since being selected 10th overall by the Phoenix in last spring’s QMJHL Draft. He also enjoyed his first taste of international hockey as a member of Team Canada at the IIHF Under-17 World Hockey Championships this winter. In his first game back with the Phoenix, he followed up with an assist and two goals – including the game winner – in a 6-1 victory over the Cape Breton Eagles.
While that performance marked a turning point for Mianscum, being part of the best junior team in Canada was not without drawbacks for a 16-year-old rookie. With the Phoenix skyrocketing to the top of the QMJHL standings and CHL rankings, the club increasingly leaned on more experienced players as the season wore on.
“It’s tough at 16 to play junior hockey. It’s even tougher when it’s with the No. 1 team in Canada,” Mianscum told the Nation from his home in Mistissini. “But I felt much better as the season went along. I felt like I belonged.”
Sherbrooke Phoenix head coach Stéphane Julien agreed with that assessment.
“Israel brought a lot to the table in his first season with us. He’s a smart player, who quietly went about his business, and has learned a lot,” Julien said. “His potential is there, and we expect him to be a part of our top six next season.”
Junior teams like the Phoenix see a turnover in player personnel every year. Older players age out of the league, while others step away for personal reasons. The prospect of landing an important role on the top two lines of a Memorial Cup contender brings Mianscum closer to his dream – hearing his name called at the 2021 NHL Draft.
“It has always been my goal to get drafted by an NHL team, but I don’t want to focus too much on that,” Mianscum allowed. “I just need to work hard.”
The need for hard work became evident in his rookie season with the Phoenix, he noted: “The older guys are way stronger and way faster. Now I have the time to build on the stuff I’ve learned.”
Staying fit and preparing for next season remains a constant goal. Mianscum continues to work out in the gym he set up at home in Mistissini with the guidance he is receiving from Phoenix personnel.
He plans to return to Sherbrooke well in advance of training camp this August to further his conditioning and skating ability with the Montreal Canadiens’ strength and conditioning coach Pierre Allard. Mianscum credits the time he spent with Allard last summer for his fast start with the Phoenix this season. For now, however, spending time with family remains his priority for this extended off-season.
“It sucks right now that I can’t get on the ice, and Sherbrooke was a great place for me to be,” Mianscum said. “But I am home now, and I am enjoying spending time with my family, getting back to some Cree traditions that I’ve missed, and spending some time in the bush.”