The pride of family, friends and coaches is palpable in Newfoundland as two NHL first-round draft picks from the island prepare to take the ice for the 2021-22 NHL season.
Dawson Mercer, 20, of Bay Roberts and Alex Newhook, 19, of St. John's are suiting up for the New Jersey Devils and Colorado Avalanche, respectively. Newhook was drafted 16th overall in 2019, while Mercer was picked 18th overall in 2020.
Newhook and the Avalanche take on the Chicago Blackhawks in Denver on Wednesday night, while Mercer will don his Devils jersey for the team's season opener against the Blackhawks on Friday.
Steve Power, technical director of the Avalon Minor Hockey Association and president of the Canadian Ball Hockey Association, says he was not surprised both players made the cut.
"They're both top-end talents," Power said. "The cream always rises to the top."
After starting his minor hockey career at the Bay Arena in Bay Roberts in 2014, Mercer played in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and competed in the world junior hockey championship in 2019 and 2020.
Newhook's minor hockey career brought him to the world juniors in 2017, 2018 and 2020, and to Boston College in 2019, where he played for two years in the National Collegiate Athletic Association. Newhook scored his first NHL goal in the playoffs in May against the St. Louis Blues.
Power said he remembers watching Newhook on the ice at the age of five.
"By the time he got to Atom hockey, he was one of the best players on the ice," Power said. "You could tell there was something special."
Newhook was coached from an early age by his father, Shawn (Skinny) Newhook, Power said, which he believes played a big role in the young star's success.
"Skinny Newhook is the most unassuming person you'll ever meet," he said. "So it's a really good lesson for parents out there: You don't need to be over the top. You don't need to be on coaches all the time, because I know the Newhooks — and the Mercers, for that matter — are not like that in one bit."
As for Mercer, Power said he had an unmatched work ethic and skill that made him impossible to ignore.
"Dawson just pulled the bull by the horns," he said. "He took the spot and he said, 'You can't cut me.'"
Bay Roberts Mayor Walter Yetman says the mood in Mercer's hometown was "crazy" after the news was announced.
"It's a big day," he said. "We're so proud of our local boy."
Mercer, whose hard work and dedication earned him the nickname "Awesome Dawson," will continue to inspire kids in the area for years to come, Yetman said.
"Whatever sport you're in, whatever you're doing, hard work pays off," he said.
A lifetime in the making
Bo Bennett is Mercer's lifelong hockey coach. He's also his uncle.
"This has been a lifelong thing for Dawson and for our family," he said. During early coaching sessions, he noticed "the first kid with his eyes as big as marbles listening to everything I had to say."
Some 10 years later, Bennett is shedding tears of joy knowing the kid locals once called "the Matrix" will now be playing in the big league.
"My favourite team is the Devils right now, because my favourite player is a Devil," he said.
WATCH | Kids and coaches wish Alex Newhook and Dawson Mercer luck as the new NHL season gets underway:
Jessica Mercer, herself a hockey player, says her brother's success comes down to his versatility and skill.
"He's smart. He's offensive and defensive," she said. "He can play where you want him to."
Mercer said she can't wait to watch her big brother hit the ice in New Jersey next week.