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Bryan Little becomes first Colt to have his number retired

'Barrie will always have a special place in our hearts. The organization is truly first class,' Little said at Saturday night ceremony at centre ice

On a special night, when a packed Sadlon Arena was there to honour him, Bryan Little decided to fess up about a little mischief during his days as a star player with the Barrie Colts.

Addressing the fans before his special banner was raised to the rafters and his No. 18 officially retired by the Colts in a ceremony before Saturday night's game against the Hamilton Bulldogs, Little told the story of a night he and teammate Dan Speer tried to sneak out of their billet's home past curfew.

There was only one problem for the Colts then-captain, who made few waves off the ice then. You see, trying to sneak out the basement window didn't work out so well.

"I got stuck in it for a decent amount of time," Little explained. "Dan had to yank me back in by the ankles."

He then turned to current owner Howie Campbell and former owner Jamie Massie, who were standing a few feet behind him at centre ice.

"It's probably the first time they're hearing this story," Little said, drawing a roar of laughter from the fans.

The thing is, it was likely the only time anything or anyone stopped the current Winnipeg Jets forward back in his junior hockey days in Barrie.

The Colts' all-time leading scorer was as big a star as any player to throw on the jersey in the 25 years of the OHL franchise. That it was Little the team decided to officially make the first player to have his number retired, comes as no surprise to anyone who watched him play here.

Little grabbed the attention and hearts of fans as a 16-year-old that first 2006-07 season. He scored 34 times and added 24 assists for 58 points in 64 games en route to winning OHL rookie of the year award.

By the time his junior career had come to an end three years later, he had totalled 153 goals and 189 helpers for 342 points in just 247 games.

"Whenever we needed a goal or the game was close, Bryan was the guy you wanted on the ice," Campbell said.

That he even became a Barrie Colt in the first place is still somewhat surprising to those in the organization who coveted the Cambridge minor hockey star back then. Little, you see, didn't go until the third round (50th overall) of the 2003 OHL Priority Selection.

Mike McCann, who was general manager at the time, grabbed underage blue-liner Steve Spade with the ninth-overall pick, but he didn't have a second-round selection, which likely meant missing out on the No. 1 centre on his draft list.

But when a late-season injury forced the Cambridge Junior 'B' centre to the sidelines and his agent kept him out of a top prospects game, it appeared Little was not top of mind for most other OHL teams.

As each pick was announced, he remained available.

When the Guelph Storm selected winger Andy Hyvarinen with the 49th-overall pick and the Colts realized Little was theirs, the board room at what was then called the Barrie Molson Centre, full of hockey operations staff and scouts, erupted in cheers.

"We couldn't believe it," McCann said. "I remember, in the middle of the second round (then team scout and current Tampa NHL scout Rob Kitamura) saying, 'He's still there.' He was the top right centre in the draft, so we couldn't believe it.

"That was the first time in the room that there was cheers like that."

As last night's celebration kicked off with highlights from Little's career with Barrie and Winnipeg and a video message from former head coach Marty Williamson, it was easy to understand why the Atlanta Thrashers would use their 12th-overall pick in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft to select him.

During his career 13-year NHL career he's come across others, who like him, called Barrie their junior homes. Names like current Jets teammate Mark Scheifele or former Winnipeg players like goaltender Michael Hutchinson and forward Brendan Lemieux. They always found time to share their experiences in Barrie.

"A lot of positive things come up," Little said of their discussions. "We all enjoyed our time here and it's some of the best memories we have in our careers. Barrie will always have a special place in our hearts. The organization is truly first class.

"The thing that stands out the most is that all these former Colts are not only great hockey players, but truly great people and I think that says a lot about this place and the culture here."

Little won gold with Canada at the World Junior Hockey Championships in 2007. It came as no surprise to Barrie fans he played a leading role.

Williamson talks of just how competitive his first true superstar was and how Little and linemate Hunter Tremblay would be angry after just an average shift.

No one expected more from his game than Little himself. He went as hard in practice as he did in games, but the reason why so many fans were sporting Bryan Little jerseys was his ability to rise to the occasion.

The bigger the moment, the bigger the game, the better he was. The more determined to come through for his team. He's as consistent a player as they come, which is a big reason the 32-year-old's career is still going strong.

On a night where the Colts blew a 6-0 lead to the Hamilton Bulldogs after the opening period, only to pull out an 8-7 win thanks to Aidan Brown's overtime winner, interim head coach Todd Miller said his young team had all the inspiration they needed thanks to seeing just how much Little meant to fans here.

"I watched him when he was here, but even for our players to see what it takes and what he meant to this city in Barrie here is great," Miller said. "The whole ceremony, and everything, I think pumped our team up. That's why we got off to such a great little start. Great seeing Bryan here, it was awesome."

Quiet and unassuming in his days in Barrie, Little was never one to desire the spotlight, though he shined just about every time it found him. As he walked on to the ice to cheering fans, the smile on his face grew and it never left during the half-hour celebration.

He grew up in Barrie in many ways, on and off the ice. His hockey career truly took off here.

Little says Barrie took a chance on him, but the truth is, in a lot of ways, he took a chance on Barrie. He would soon discover there was much more to the city that he only first knew as the city you passed on the way to the cottage.

He found a second home. He found a team and city that would take a young teenager in and support him in every way as he chased his hockey dreams. Even if he was sneaking out the basement window past curfew.

"Without you, this game wouldn't be the same," he told fans just before the banner was raised. Colts fans are some of the best fans in all of junior hockey. You made this a great building to play in and I'll forever cherish the memories I made here, including this special night. Thank you from the bottom of my heart."

Little and his parents, John and Brenda, then walked over to the blue-line at the east end of the arena and watched as his banner was raised to the rafters.

The first of its kind. A fitting sight for any Colts fan.


Gene Pereira

About the Author: Gene Pereira

An award-winning journalist, Gene is former sports editor of the Barrie Examiner and his byline has appeared in several newspapers. He is also the longtime colour analyst of the OHL Barrie Colts on Rogers TV
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