It’s 24 hours before the 813th rendition of the Toronto Maple Leafs/Montreal Canadiens rivalry. It’s the second time the two historic rivals are meeting in Toronto and there is an invigorating pulse throughout the city. The energy excites Montreal Canadiens young defenseman Victor Mete every time he comes back home to play the Maple Leafs.
“Last year wasn’t so great against the Leafs,” says Mete. “But this year we came out of the gate strong against them. It’s two competitive young teams so it’s always fun to be a part of that battle.”
Sitting in the restaurant of Montreal’s team hotel, it was the first time that Victor and I had conversed face-to-face since our high school days. We both attended The Country Day School, an independent private school in King City, Ontario.
Back to School
Every lunchtime at CDS, I would provide play-by-play commentary of the school’s lunchtime ball hockey league. The gymnasium was occupied by grueling physical education classes during school hours. But during lunch, it was the amphitheater for students to escape their educational responsibilities and to participate in riveting school spirit. As Mete prepared to play in his 100th NHL game Saturday against the Maple Leafs, he still reminisces those simpler times at CDS, where he was the marquee ball hockey player, along with current Arizona Coyotes defenseman Jakob Chychrun. According to Victor, CDS was the place that shaped him into the grounded, determined person he is today, ultimately becoming a starting defenseman for the Montreal Canadiens.
“Being at the school for nine years, seeing how the faculty and students treat me when I go back and visit means a lot,” states Mete. “I was a different case, knowing that I wasn’t gearing up for university. But the people at CDS did a great job teaching me what to expect for the future. The days playing ball hockey certainly paid off and I was happy to be a part of something special that brought the school together.”
Victor Mete Grateful for Parents in Supporting his NHL Dream
The success of many NHL players is driven by the intrinsic support of their families. The early morning car rides epitomize the Canadian hockey experience. The sacrifice and burden on parents to invest in their kids’ hockey development are immense. But for Victor Mete, the parental support he received from the inception of his love affair with hockey, has been the bedrock to achieve his dream of playing in the NHL.
Mete’s hockey journey began in the backyard of his childhood home in Woodbridge, Ontario. His sister, Julia, was a competitive figure skater, prompting young Victor to lace up the skates to try and emulate her rhythm. When it was clear that triple axels weren’t in his repertoire, Mete began to follow in the footsteps of his father and play hockey. Joseph Mete aspired to one day accomplish the goal of making the NHL. But like many hockey players, the dream would become less and less feasible. The highest level Joseph played would be for the minor-midget Don Mills Flyers in the GTHL. As Victor explains, Joseph’s parents did not share that same belief and ambition for hockey that he had. Joseph did not want to make the same similar mistake when raising Victor.
Living his Dad’s Dream
“My Dad was a pretty good hockey player but his Father needed him home to help out his banquet hall business. So he could not achieve his hockey dreams,” recalls Mete. “My Dad said to me at a very young age that he wanted to give me every opportunity to live out my dream of one day making it to the NHL. My Dad is the influence that got me into hockey and I am grateful for my family’s support in ensuring that I could be successful on the ice.”
Mete’s first hockey game would be as a six-year-old with the Vaughan Blue in the NYHL. His coach put him on the ice as a forward, where the team would go on to win 10-1. But soon after his inaugural game, Mete would transition to the defense position. He would never look back as he began to cultivate on learning the important skills and qualities to be a perennial athlete on and off the ice.
Victor Mete’s Junior Hockey Career Laid Foundation for NHL
When I brought up the London Knights 2016 Memorial Cup team that Victor was on and the players that he played with as a Knight, it brings an expressive smile to his face. From Matthew Tkachuk to Mitch Marner, Mete looks back at his time with London in the OHL as the pillar that made the path to the NHL a realistic expectation.
Mete was taken eighth overall by the Owen Sound Attack in the 2014 OHL Priority Draft. But before the season had begun, he was traded to the London Knights in exchange for six draft picks. He would be going to a franchise that has won two Memorial Cups and four OHL championships in the team’s history. Not only was the young defenseman exhilarated with the possibility of playing on a winning team but also to have access to a quality education while playing in the OHL. Given that many OHL players eventually pursue a college education, Victor wanted to keep his options open.
“My parents had spent a lot of money on my education. So I wanted to be traded to a team that was near a top university,” says Mete. “London was one of those OHL teams, given its proximity to Western and Blythe. I had offers from American colleges but given the quicker path to the NHL, my mind was made up that I wanted to go play for the London Knights.”
Help From the Hunters
When he arrived in London, Mete was immediately immersed in the organization’s culture of winning. A large part of this is due to the efficacious leadership of the Hunter brothers, Mark and Dale. In 2000, Mark and Dale bought the London Knights from then-owner Doug Tarry Jr. They immediately turned the franchise around into one that was the model of the entire OHL. When Victor recalls his tenure in London, he is grateful for Coach Dale Hunter and the knowledge he taught him that would eventually transfer to the NHL.
“Going into London my first year, I started on the third defensive pairing,” says Mete. “Come Christmas time, I was playing against the top players such as Connor McDavid. Coach Hunter had a lot of trust in me early on and encouraged me at practice and in video sessions to play with confidence and to not be afraid. Given everything he taught me, I would say he was a critical part of my development as a player.”
When Mete stepped on the ice, he made an instant impact for London. His tremendous speed and ability to read plays made him an effective player passing and handling the puck. But with the help of his coaches, Mete also became a player with tons of offensive potential. In his final year with London, he generated 15 goals and 29 assists, the same year the Knights went on to win the Memorial Cup. It wouldn’t be too long before Victor would be headed to another franchise with a long, illustrious history of victory and accolades.
Victor Mete Thrives on Big Stage from World Juniors to Bell Centre
Buffalo, New York, has become a city of great importance in Victor Mete’s career. On June 24th, 2016, it would be site where the defenseman would achieve his dream of playing in the NHL. He would be the Montreal Canadiens second round draft pick.
Two years later in Buffalo, Mete would be sporting the red and white Team Canada jersey for the World Junior Hockey Championship. In six games played, Mete would generate three assists as a critical member of Team Canada. After losing in the gold medal game the year before, Canada would gain revenge by beating Sweden 2-1, capturing gold on American soil.
Dreaming of the WJC
As a little boy, Victor has fond memories watching the World Juniors with his family over the Christmas holidays. Given the shortness of the tournament, Mete was appreciative of the lessons learned from the coaches. Particularly in building the camaraderie with the players.
“It’s special when you can play for your country at the World Juniors in front of friends and family,” says Mete. “We did a lot of team activities before the tournament, to get to know each other, since many of us hadn’t played on a team together before. Given that it was a short tournament, it was memorable that we were able to develop chemistry so quickly, propelling us to a gold medal.”
The consistent ice time that Mete received during the World Juniors demonstrated his ability to raise his level in the big games. His affinity to perform in the pressure situations has translated while playing on the Montreal Canadiens. While he admits that the learning curve was steep jumping from the OHL to the pros, he was given an opportunity to learn and play with skilled players.
Partnering With Shea Weber
Shea Weber is one of those guys. At one time, Weber was considered the best defenseman in the NHL. An Olympic gold medalist, Weber came to the Canadiens after spending 11 seasons with the Nashville Predators. With his blistering slap shot and physical size, Weber has been the backbone of the Canadiens blue line the past two seasons.
Back in training camp, Mete was given the shock of his life. He and Weber would be paired on defense together. As the season has progressed, Canadiens head coach Claude Julien has stuck with Mete and Weber as Montreal’s top defensive pairing. This has provided an enormous chance for Mete to grow as a player. He’s also learned from an experienced defenseman like Weber.
“Weber is a big presence to this team, who brings a huge vocal presence in the locker room as our captain,” says Mete. “From playing as him on NHL video games to now being paired with him on the blue line is very special. I was scared initially to be paired with an esteemed defenseman like him. But Shea did a great job reassuring me to just keep playing my game and staying patient. It has worked out for us.”
Victor Mete Grateful For Relationships with Teammates
As a young player, Mete has developed a deep rapport with his Montreal teammates. Entering the league for the first time, there can be multiple distractions at a player’s disposal. But for Victor, the support of his family and the mentorship from his teammates have allowed him to focus on hockey.
Canadiens goaltender Carey Price fits the mould of a mentorship teammate. Being an Olympic gold medalist, a Vezina and Hart trophy winner has made Price undoubtedly one of the most successful goalies in the NHL. But the calm, stoic persona that he projects is a quality that Mete admires in his goaltender. Price has provided Victor with invaluable advice about playing with confidence as a defenseman.
“Carey is always so calm and sets the mood for everyone,” says Price. “When the game may not be going our way, Price always tells us to keep playing hard. If there is a must win situation come playoff time, I’m glad we have Carey Price as our goalie.”
The Bond With Kotkaniemi
The most evident alliance for Mete has been with Canadiens rookie forward Jesperi Kotkaniemi. Drafted third overall by the Canadiens in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft, the Finnish forward has made his presence well known on the ice, scoring 11 goals and 19 assists this season. Given the closeness in age, Mete and Kotkaniemi immediately developed a close bond. Victor was able to provide similar advice the older teammates gave him to Kotkaniemi about adjusting to playing in the NHL.
And the road trips are especially fun, as Mete and Kotkaniemi often room together.
“On every road trip, we room together and I always take the first bed closest to the door,” says Mete. “I then always call down to ask the front desk if they can bring up some gluten free pizza. It’s the routine every road trip and it’s worked well for us.”
As Mete explains, Kotkaniemi’s offensive prowess and ability to move the puck to create scoring chances will make him a dangerous threat.
“We are both the youngest players on the team. I would drive Jasperi around the first month of the season, to get him settled in Montreal and provide him advice. He has amazing ability to move the puck and a great vision of the ice. To see what he has done thus far at 18 years old, it’s going only up from here.”
Victor Mete Revels in the Rivalry with Toronto Maple Leafs
Mete admits that the initial start to the season was disappointing by his standards. He was sent down to the AHL in Laval because of this. But as the young defenseman explains, the experience allowed him to correct some of the facets of his game that needed improvement.
“The coaches wanted me to work on my defensive play,” says Mete. “Being in Laval for three weeks, I worked on in-zone battles in the corner and being more physical. I developed more tools in my game that I now use playing for Montreal. Being a smaller guy, it’s important for me to play big and with confidence, which is what I’m trying to do daily.”
Now, Mete is a full time starting defenseman for a Canadiens team eager to get back to the playoffs. Being in Toronto for his 100th game against the Maple Leafs, Mete often wonders the magnitude of a potential playoff series between the two rivals. The rivalry between Toronto and Montreal goes back generations. It has been entrenched into the English and French Canadian cultures for decades.
A Long Time Coming
The Leafs and Canadiens have not met in the playoffs since 1979. However, the waiting may not be long before they meet in a seven-game series.
“I think it would be crazy,” says Mete. “It’s definitely a possibility given how close we are in the standings. To see an already heated rivalry in the regular season now in a best-of-seven series, it would be pretty emotional and hard-fought.”
In the first two games this season, both teams played fast. The Canadiens out shot the Leafs in both contests, but Toronto got the upper hand with victories in overtime. On Saturday, Montreal got off to a fast start, scoring three goals in the opening period. But the offensive weapons of the Leafs started to take over, scoring six unanswered goals to complete the comeback 6-3. From Auston Matthews and Marner to John Tavares and William Nylander, Mete understands fully the importance of trying to prevent these players from getting space in the open ice.
“The Leafs have so many creative players on their team,” says Mete. “Taking away their time in space is so crucial. Having good sticks, closing their gaps and keeping them on the outside will allow us to be successful against them in preventing scoring chances.”
Victor Mete Eager for Playoffs
After a disappointing season last year that saw Montreal miss the playoffs, the Canadiens underwent several changes. Max Pacioretty and Alex Galchenyuk were transferred. Max Domi became a new member of the team. Many Montreal fans were gunning for general manager Marc Bergevin to be fired.
But Victor never lost faith in his team. The fact the Canadiens are playing with confidence and now on the cusp of a playoff spot is not surprising.
“I thought we were a strong team with a lot of new faces,” says Mete. “Despite not having a strong season last year, I always had faith in the guys. We didn’t have a lot of expectations going into this season, which has allowed us to play loose. Doing a lot of on-ice bonding activities has allowed the players to gel and gain confidence on the ice. We have been successful thus far and now need to sustain it.”
Looking for Improvement
With eight assists during his Canadiens tenure, Mete is always looking to improve. At dinner on Saturday with his teammates before the Leafs game, his teammates were ribbing him that he hadn’t scored an NHL goal yet. While his 100th game did not produce that reality, Mete is striving to get better every day and achieve the personal goals that he sets out for himself. Adversity has never bothered Victor before; as a 5’7 defenseman, many scouts were skeptical that he would even make it to the NHL.
But given how fast-paced the NHL has become, Mete believes that smaller defencemen now have an important place in the game. And he is willing to put that to the test as Montreal embarks on their stretch run to get into the playoffs come April.
“My goal is just to have the opportunity to keep playing against the top lines of opposing teams,” says Mete. “There is no greater feeling than to slow down some of the best offensive players this game has to offer.”
From his humble beginnings in Woodbridge, a lot has changed for Victor since his ball hockey days in high school. But what remains constant is his devotion to improving his craft and his passion for playing hockey. That enthusiasm and determination will make Victor Mete a household name. Not just in Montreal, but in the NHL for years to come.
MONTREAL, QC – JANUARY 12: Montreal Canadiens defenseman Victor Mete (53), Jonathan Drouin (92) and Colorado Avalanche defenseman Tyson Barrie (4) compete for position in front of Colorado Avalanche goaltender Semyon Varlamov (1) during the first period of the NHL game between the Colorado Avalanches and the Montreal Canadiens on January 12, 2019, at the Bell Centre in Montreal, QC (Photo by Vincent Ethier/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)