25th Anniversary Special – Top 25 Rebels in franchise history; No. 4 Justin Mapletoft

As a second-year Western Hockey League forward, Justin Mapletoft displayed some impressive talents, but Red Deer Rebels GM/head coach Brent Sutter was convinced the Lloydminster-born centre was capable of so much more.
A fifth-round selection of the New York Islanders in the 1999 NHL entry draft after coming off a 24-goal, 46-point season, Mapletoft erupted for 39 goals and 96 points during the ’99-2000 season, Sutter’s first as the Rebels’ new owner, GM and bench boss.
However, the Isles made him an early cut during training camp that fall and Mapletoft returned to Red Deer somewhat disillusioned. But after an emotional sit-down with Sutter, he became the top player not only on the Rebels, but in the entire WHL.
“My first year here Justin was an 18-year-old and I thought he had an OK year,” said Sutter. “But there were just things in his game that he really needed to improve on. He really needed to be more of a competitor on a game-to-game basis.
“He had all the skills and I certainly believed that if he did things the right way that he could be a top-end player in this league, a guy who could play in a lot of different situations, and be accountable, and put up a large number of points.
“He could play it any way. He was strong, he could hit and he was a good enough skater to get by.”
But Mapletoft needed guidance, particularly after being returned to the Rebels in the early stages of the Islanders’ camp in the fall of 2000.
“I remember we were having our (preseason) tournament at the Red Deer Arena. I got a call that morning from Mapes and he was really upset and was on his way back,” said Sutter. “I told him to come to the rink when he got in and and I would meet with him.
“We had a really great talk and it was a very emotional talk for him. I explained to him exactly the way things had to be and the commitment he had to make. I told him that if he did things right he could be a player who had an opportunity to play in all situations here, a player who could be a dominant player in this league.”
Mapletoft returned to his family’s home in Calgary to let the advice sink in and returned the following week for practice.
“He came to practice on a Tuesday and he was on a mission, and he was on that all year,” said Sutter.
The six-foot-one, 185-pound centre led the league in scoring during the 2000-01 season with 43 goals and 120 points, then added 34 points — including 13 goals — in 22 playoff games as the Rebels captured the WHL championship and then the Memorial Cup.
His exploits not only won him the Bob Clarke Trophy as the WHL’s top scorer, but the Four Broncos Memorial Award as the league’s most outstanding player.
“He had a fantastic season and was a big-time player for us that year,” said Sutter. “He was a guy who teams had to be always leery of when he was on the ice because he was doing the right things offensively or physically doing the right things.”
Mapletoft skated on a line with Martin Erat and Kyle Wanvig late in the regular season and through the remainder of the spring, a unit that was among the best — if not the very best — in the league.
“That line had a bit of everything on it,” said Sutter. “Mapes could make plays, he had a great shot, he got into the rough areas to score goals and won a lot of one-on-one battles. He became a dominant major junior player.”
Coming off his dream season, Mapletoft started his professional career with the Islanders organization — with whom Sutter played for 11 of his 18 NHL seasons — as a 20-year-old in the fall of 2001.
“When I wasn’t a high pick it gave me a lot of fire to show I can be a lot better player than people thought,” Mapletoft told Peter Botte of the New York Daily News in October of 2002, after being recalled by the Islanders following one season with Bridgeport of the American League.
“Brent always told me he thought I could be a similar player to what he was. . . . And he always told us a lot about this organization and what an honour it is to put on this jersey.”
Sutter never lost faith in his belief that Mapletoft could evolve into a special player.
“He took his game to a whole new level (during the Rebels championship season) and I truly believed he could do that,” said the Rebels boss. “If you’re not at the level you need to be at there are reasons why, and normally it’s something internal.
“You just have to admit that there are certain things you need to change. Justin became really committed off the ice, with the way he prepared. He became a guy who inside the dressing room was really well liked. He became a great teammate.”
And it all dialled back to the meeting between coach and player in the fall of 2000.
“I got to know Mapes really well, what made him tick,” said Sutter. “He was one of those guys who cared very deeply, but needed someone he could trust to talk to.
“A lot of our conversations from then on were just heart-to-heart talks and he was tremendously honest from that point on about what he could do as a player. He was an elite player in minor hockey, when he came up he just needed the proper direction and to know that someone was in his corner.
“I was real proud of the way he grew as a person that season. He matured a lot, took everything to heart and made himself into the player he was.”
Mapletoft, perhaps due to the fact he wasn’t an elite skater, played only 38 games in the NHL — all with the Islanders — scoring three goals and adding six assists.
He headed overseas in 2005 and played seven seasons in Europe before his pro career concluded in 2012. Now 36, Mapletoft resides in Calgary.
His relationship with Mapletoft — as has been the case with any of his players over the years — wasn’t all roses and sunshine, Sutter noted.
“There were kicks in the behind but he never took it personally and neither did I,” said Sutter. “My role as a coach and general manager is to get players to reach their maximum potential. There is no easy way, you have to work for everything you get and Mapes really took that to heart.
“That group of (Memorial Cup championship) players is a special group . . . always will be for me.”

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