Orillia’s Sam Hossack helps out with the Barrie AAA bantam team and oversees their social media feed. To give the young, up-and-coming players a possible glimpse into their future, he interviewed Orillia’s Kyle Heitzner, now in his second year with the OHL’s Barrie Colts. What follows is his question-and-answer session with Heitzner, a Patrick Fogarty Catholic Secondary School graduate and nominee for Orillia Athlete of the Year (2017).
Q. During your bantam season, do you remember how it went for you as a player? How did you guys do that season?
A. Bantam was a tough age for me. Around minor bantam/major bantam a lot of kids grow a lot, and, unfortunately, I was not one of those kids. Being undersized (5'4) that season I knew I had to hit the gym and get stronger. The second half of my season went really well and I was one of the top point getters to finish the season. Although we lost in the first round to the top seed in playoffs, I was proud of myself for persevering, committing myself to getting stronger, and having a good second half.
Q. You were born in Brechin and then spent a lot of your life in Orillia playing with the North Central Predators (NCP) organization. How did NCP help you in preparing for the next level ?
A. Some of my favourite memories are wearing a Predators jersey. I am really proud to be part of the north central alumni and I’m thankful for some of the coaches who helped develop me over the years - Roy Micks, Tobias Whalen, my father Shawn Heitzner. My biggest year of development was in minor midget where I was coached by Andrew Morris, Andrew Hawke (both Elmira College alumni), and John Kerr. Andrew Morris is still to this day my favourite coach. He brought so much leadership to our team in minor midget and was a big reason why we made it to the OHL Cup that season (top 16 teams in Ontario). That team was special, losing our best player from the year before (Tyler Burnie, current Kingston Frontenac) to Barrie's minor midget program, nobody expected us to even make playoffs. With no real superstars, it gave guys like me a chance to step up and become one. With plenty of opportunity and a chip on my shoulder, I was able to turn a lot of heads, and so was our team from coaches to players. We went on to beat Barrie with our former captain in Game 6 (do or die for both teams) of the first round, ending their season and continuing our amazing journey ahead. That season was unforgettable. I'm still in touch with every single guy on the team three years later, and many of them have went on to play Junior B/A or higher.
Q. Now onto Draft Day. What were the thoughts going through your mind? Did you know the Colts we’re going to pick you or if you were going to be picked by any club?
A. Draft day was unbelievable. I remember after defeating Barrie from the first round of playoffs, scoring four goals in that series, two being game-tying goals in games five and six, I was invited to the Barrie Molson Centre to have a sit-down meeting with the Barrie Colts Gm Jason Ford. They asked me some questions, got to know me and said they were very interested in me. I remember how exciting that was for me and how much confidence it gave me going into the final push of the season. Still undersized in minor midget (5'7, 150), my coaches weren't sure if I would even get drafted. My agent had plenty of calls leading up to the draft with interest from teams, but I knew it could go either way. I know that if I wasn't picked that day I would have used it as motivation and build off the great season I had just had. Although, when I got the call from Barrie, saying they had picked me in the 11th round, 218th overall, it was a dream come true. My parents were in tears they were so proud of me; I was speechless, it didn't even feel real. Close friends and family came to celebrate; it was such an exciting day. I knew from that moment on I was going to find a way to make that team.
Q. Take us through a day of Kyle Heitzner. What does a normal game day or practice day look like for you with the Colts?
A. Right now I am living the dream. We have a long season (68 games) and with only four days off a month we almost practice every single day for two hours. It's amazing. I'm doing what I love all the time, and we are treated great in the OHL. Sticks, equipment, education money, free meals, gym memberships, the list goes on. I feel truly feel blessed. My practice days usually consist of a team workout/skate in the morning, followed by an afternoon practice. I'll usually put in some work after practice, go home for dinner with my billets and then head to Moksha Yoga for a hot yoga class. Game days are a little different. We have time to rest and be prepared for the game. We have to be there a couple hours early to get warmed up, have a pre-game talk with the coaches, etc.
Q. Transitioning from Orillia to Cambridge at only 16 must have been a big move. How did you transition into moving away from home to play Jr. B hockey?
A. My first season when I was 16, unsuccessful making the Colts, I was able to move away from home and play in the Jr. B league for the Cambridge Winterhawks. During my time there I had to battle some adversity. The coach I started the season with liked to play older guys, so I really had to earn my ice time. When I was starting to play better I injured my lower back in a fight against Listowel and missed the next 12 games. During that time, I was not liking it at my billets. They were nice people but they had never lived with a hockey player and I don't think they were used to my lifestyle, how much I ate, and having an extra kid in the house. It wasn't a good fit. I spent some time at home recovering and when I got back I was able to move in with my teammate Liam Hurley (18 at the time). His parents, Phil and Cathy, were so good to me. I never felt so at home, my social life was better living with an older guy, and my back felt so much better. It translated onto the ice where I would finish the season second in team points with 31 points in 38 games. I credit a lot of my success in my second half to my good friend Sean Ross who decided to come over from another Jr. B team and play with me; we were great together. I also give credit to the new coach we had: Dan Fitzgerald, who believed in me and gave me a chance to play big minutes as a very young player in the league. To expand on my last question, that first season of junior hockey really helped me prepare for the OHL. I had the option of staying home and playing midget AAA, or Jr. C in my hometown, but I'm so glad I took a chance and went. I don't think I'd be where I am right now if I didn't. Playing against older, stronger guys was a big test for me and it pushed me to grow as a player and keep getting stronger. I was no longer playing with boys, I was playing with men and it took me time to adjust in that league for sure.
Q. How has your experience been with the Barrie Colts the last two seasons??
A. Playing for the Colts the last two seasons has been great. Last year was tough; being a rookie I didn't play much. It was the first time in my life I wasn't the dominant player or one of the top players. It was a good season to mature, learn the ropes as an OHL player and I made some life-long friends with some of the other rookies that season. Curtis Douglas, traded to Windsor this year, and Christian Propp, traded to North Bay this year, became brothers to me and I still keep in touch with them on a regular basis. We spend a lot of time together in our off-season and I'm looking forward to that again this summer. As for right now in my second season, it hasn't been everything I've expected it to be. I was hoping to come in and be one of the top guys. I had no problem making the team with all of the hard work I put in the off season, but missing three games due to suspension at the start of the year set me back, when a lot of other guys had hot starts. Playing in the OHL is a roller coaster, there's a lot of ups and downs but you just have to stay in the cart. Right now, I am playing a fourth-line role on a very strong team. I am really excited for playoffs and to see what our team can do. We are currently second in the east and will mathematically stay in second. Even though I am not getting much opportunity right now, I have been working out every single day and preparing myself for playoffs harder than anyone, knowing that there's a strong possibility of injury or suspension in the playoffs, where I might get the opportunities to prove myself. I am enjoying the process, but I am not where I want to be yet and I hope that my next two seasons of junior hockey are huge for me.