This week, I attended the OHL Cup tournament in Toronto. The tournament features the top minor midget hockey teams in Ontario and parts of the United States. It also acts as a way to showcase players for managers and scouts of major junior teams. Since much of the players in this tournament will be in junior hockey next year, and since the Barrie Colts are picking first overall in this year’s OHL Priority Selection, I was curious to see who will be in the league come September.
The last time the Colts selected first overall was in 2011. They took a 14-year-old from Belle River, Ontario named Aaron Ekblad in the draft that year. The rest as they say is history. This year, many OHL scouts, coaches, general managers, and media I have talked to are speaking highly of Jack Hughes (pictured), a talented forward from Orlando, Florida who is playing with the Toronto Marlboros of the GTHL (the Marlboros are one of the teams taking part in the OHL Cup). Despite his small size (he’s listed as 5’11” but many think he’s shorter than that), they feel he has the skill-set to be an impact player for the Colts. But Hughes is also being attracted by NCAA schools and the United States National Development Team. The Colts have been burned in the past for using their first selection to draft players (particularly those who are American-born) that intend or have made commitments to other programs. So whether the Colts will take him at number one at the April 8th draft remains to be seen.
While we’ve seen the likes of Ekblad and Connor McDavid at the NHL level, many have not seen the two develop in the junior ranks. I was fortunate enough to cover these two players as they spent a good portion of their teenage years in the OHL. I also had the pleasure of watching Jason Spezza, John Tavares, Steven Stamkos, and Bobby Ryan play in the league. It is fascinating to see them play at a high level well before they became household names.
Despite what you hear in the media, hockey players (and other athletes) do not grow on trees. Finding a great hockey player is more than about whether he can score goals. There are a number of factors involved. How well does he skate? How is his hockey IQ? Does he make too many mistakes with the puck? What about the program he is currently in? Is it constantly developing good hockey players? Does he make other players on the team better? What’s he like away from the rink? What about his upbringing? His family?
This kind of thinking also applies to other sports especially when it comes to family. Lonzo Ball is projected to go number one in the upcoming NBA draft. But most of the talk isn’t about the UCLA standout, it is about his father, former US collegiate basketball player LaVar Ball. The elder Ball seems to have taken control of his son’s budding basketball career, bragging about his abilities and putting an enormous value and unnecessary pressure on him. Add to that, LeVar Ball is willing to pick fights with anyone who criticizes him like Basketball Hall of Famer Charles Barkley. These things would scare many NBA teams into not drafting Lonzo Ball, not because of his talent, but the unpredictability of his father. Fortunately, there are few people like LeVar Ball in this world.
It is interesting to find out who the next Sidney Crosby, LeBron James, or Mike Trout will be. They can be found in places like the OHL Cup, the local ball diamond, or high school gymnasium. Go see them play at your local arena before you have to fork out $200 to do the same at the Air Canada Centre.
UPDATE April 8:
The Barrie Colts selected forward Ryan Suzuki of the London Junior Knights as their first pick of the 2017 OHL Priority Selection. His older brother Nick plays for the Owen Sound Attack.
Hughes, by the way, was taken by the Mississauga Steelheads 8th overall.
Getting the First Overall Pick: Big Deal? Or Big Deal?
Lessons From the World Juniors