Junior Hockey is the Canadian primer that prepares boys between the ages of 16 and 20 for a career in professional hockey.
If a youngster wants to play junior hockey and eventually attain a place on a National Hockey League team he usually must move away from his home to the city that selects him to play on the team.
Obviously for some teen-agers, the experience is traumatic. For others, such as 20-year-old Dale McCourt of the St. Catherines Fincups, junior hockey is a stepping stone to the pot of gold that awaits him when the pros draft from the amateur ranks in June.
"I wanted to go away," McCourt said of his leaving home at 16 to begin his hockey career. "My two older brothers went away to play and they liked it. And once I left home, I quit school. School was never my interest. Hockey was always my interest. I didn't want to have to leave to go to school and worry about passing and getting marks."
The $75 a week dole to junior players has its limitations, so McCourt washed cars at a dealership. He was paid by the car and could arrange working hours to avoid conflict with hockey. This year he has a similar set-up working in a sporting goods store.
Unless he suffers a disabling injury, this is the last year he will ever worry about making money.
Last week in a Washington Capitals-Boston Bruins game two Caps swept toward the Bruin goal, with a lone defenseman in their path. Although the defenseman committed himself, the puck carrier on the left side declined to pass to his open teammate and shot instead.
The puck deflected harmlessly into the stands.
Thursday night in Sault Memorial Gardens, hard by the ice-clogged locks, McCourt and a St. Catherines Fincups teammate found themselves in similar circumstances. But this time the puck carrier, McCourt, flipped a perfect pass to Dennis Houle, who scored easily.
It's too bad Capitals coach Tom McVie wasn't here. He might have smiled. In Chicago on Wednesday, after the Capitals dissipated a 4-1 lead, McVie . . . had said in disgust, "Nothing could possibly make me smile until at least June. Maybe when I see the (amateur) draft I'll smile. That will mean me can replace some of these guys."
McCourt, 5-foot-10, 180-pound center, surely will be replacing someone in the NHL after that amateur draft. He was the most valuable player as the Fincups won Canada's junior championship, the Memorial Cup, in May, and he was also the MVP as the placed second behind to Soviet Union in* the recent World Championship's for Juniors in Czechoslovakia.
Although the Fincups arrived here a day early, they were late for their engagement with the Sault Greyhounds because their bus could not escape the clutches of the snow-filled motel parking lot. After two tow trucks finally freed the bus, McCourt scored two goals plus his classic assist and St. Catherines edged the Greyhounds, 5-3.
That brought McCourt's season total to 105 points and his Ontario major junior career mark to 443, one shy of Peter Lee's alltime record.
Friday night in Sudbury, McCourt was primed for the record-breaker. It would have been an appropriate site, since he grew up in nearby Falconbridge, starting organized hockey at age 6 and first participated in junior competition with the Sudbury Wolves at 15.
The hosts seated McCourt's parents in special gold seats and described the record possibilities in a programme announcement. But the great expectations went unfulfilled as he was scoreless in the Fincups' 5-1 victory.
Junior hockey teams draft 16-year-old midget players much as NHL and WHA pluck 20-year-old juniors. So the following season McCourt was consigned to the Fincups, then located 285 miles away in Hamilton.
McCourt's uncle is George Armstrong, former captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs who is known affectionately as Chief to fans throughout Canada.
"Him being up there and me coming up, I think he had a lot of influence on my career without even being there," McCourt said. "At first with Sudbury they called me Little Chief. They said, 'You're not the Chief yet. You've got a long way to go.'"
He has made the journey and can count on a pot of NHL gold arriving at his doorstep in June. But he is not obsessed with the prospect of those riches.
"I'd like to go to a team where I'd learn something, play a whole year and get experience," McCourt said. "I need a learning period, then I could play my game. Even if I got just five or six goals the first year, the experience would be worth it."
"I'd like to sit comfortably, but money is not the biggest thing. I don't think I'll go poor playing hockey and once I can prove myself in the NHL, I'll get what I deserve. Some of the salaries are pretty high, but they're coming down rapidly. Guys are defeating their own cause by demanding so much."
McCour possesses an accurate wrist shot, passes well and, most important, anticipates the play. His overall game is so polished that he earned Memorial Cup MVP honors without scoring a goal in the three-game final series at Montreal.
McCourt isn't the fastest guy in the league," said his coach, Bert Templeton. "But he's got good balance and maneuverability. He has a good shot, too, but the big thing is the way he anticipates the play. He's a step ahead on everybody else."
McCourt also was honored as the most gentlemanly player in Ontario last season. In a league where rough play is common, he has been able to play hockey.
"I'm always ready for it," he said. "A couple of times guys have been sent out after me and I've figured, "This guy won't leave me alone, there's no use running all game.' I handle myself all right."
"I know where I am on the ice," McCourt added. "I know there the not is, I know where the goalie is and I know where he'll move. I don't have to look before I shoot. I have a lot to learn, of course, but I'll say this.I've seen guys with a lot more talent than me, midgets who thought they had it made. But they didn't have the desire.
"I've got the desire."