The Ontario Hockey League’s return to play is slowly coming to fruition.
After the global pandemic squelched the entire 2020-21 season, the OHL’s 20 member clubs have completed training camp and are now beginning the exhibition season.
The Colts open their exhibition schedule tonight when the Owen Sound Attack visit the Sadlon Arena in south-end Barrie for a 6 p.m. puck drop.
The typical story lines that go along with the start of any season apply for the Colts, even if things are far from typical right now.
There is a new/old coaching staff, young players fighting for jobs and questions in goal.
The Colts have three first-round NHL picks who will almost certainly suit up in the world junior tournament over the holiday season, though Tyson Foerster’s OHL status before then is up in the air. A few other players that were picked later in the process over the past two drafts are also on the Colts roster.
Colts forward Evan Vierling is one of those in the latter category and is an intriguing presence in his own right.
“I’ve been down here in New York, got an opportunity to meet some of the (Rangers players) and I’m learning a lot training here,” the 19-year-old Vierling said of spending most of the summer under the watchful eye of the Rangers development staff.
Will there be a notable difference between the 17-year-old Vierling, who showed so much promise in a partial season 18 months ago, and the one that will return soon to the Colts?
Vierling certainly hopes so and knows what is at stake, including a “dream scenario” of earning an invitation to Canada’s world junior camp if he plays well.
“This season is a great opportunity for me, after (the cancellation) and everything that was (lost) last year," he said.
Vierling, who will be back in Barrie at some point in September, came to Barrie during the 2019-20 season after an uneven start to his OHL career with the Flint Firebirds, the team that picked him No. 2 overall in the 2018 Priority Selection.
The fresh start, not far away from where he grew up in Aurora, energized the lanky pivot. He produced at more than a point-a-game pace (28 GP, 12G, 22A) after the trade from faraway Flint.
NHL Draft prognosticators pegged Vierling to go in about the third round. The Rangers, using a pick they had traded up for with the San Jose Sharks, took Vierling in the fifth round, 127th overall. The drop was due to a general feeling that Vierling needed to get more involved and increase his intensity.
North American-based prospects such as Vierling were also harmed because NHL teams seemed to favour picking Europeans in the later rounds because there were more live viewing opportunities across the pond once the draft was delayed by four months while North American barns sat dark.
“I think that’s (accurate),” he said, when an informal scouting report on him was read aloud from before the pandemic shutdown. “I talked to NHL scouts myself who told me that they want me to go to the dirty areas more and be less of a perimeter player.”
Beyond play on the ice, Vierling is also encouraged by his improved health. He had off-season surgery on his knee that had been bothering him for a while. He also battled different injury issues in Flint, Mich.
“I feel great… ready to go,” he said, describing the procedure that involved his own blood being drawn and injected back in later.
Vierling, Colorado Avalanche first-round pick Oskar Olausson and San Jose Sharks prospect Ethan Cardwell are certainties up front in the Colts lineup. Brandt Clarke, the eighth-overall pick of the Los Angeles Kings, will be the Colts leader at the back end.
Foerster, who was picked 23rd overall by the Philadelphia Flyers in the 2020 NHL Draft, is subject to a special provision from the cancelled season and doesn’t require being returned to junior. That’s because Foerster played enough American Hockey League games last season to qualify to play there this season as a 19-year-old, though he is expected to be made available to play for Team Canada at the world juniors.
“I hear it’s not looking very good right now,” Vierling said of Foerster’s status with the Colts.
At least there is a chance for the Colts with Foerster. Cole Perfetti (Saginaw) and Quinton Byfield (Sudbury), Vierling’s former minor hockey teammate, have almost certainly played their last OHL game even if they don’t make the NHL out of training camp.
Like virtually all OHL clubs, the Colts’ depth chart is a dog’s breakfast right now. Though training camp cuts have been made, a double cohort of prospects from the past two drafts are competing for jobs during the six-game exhibition season with the regular season set to begin on Oct 7.
That group of players is doing it in front of a new coaching staff led by Marty Williamson, who has returned to Barrie and has the duo role of head coach and general manager.
Williamson had a long and successful run in Barrie more than a decade ago, leading the club as far as OHL final. He then left for Niagara and did the same with the IceDogs a few years later.
More recently, Williamson was running Brock University’s men’s hockey program and returned to Barrie as a consultant the season before the pandemic hit.
Williamson is presiding over a team whose biggest question mark will be in goal, a position without a returnee. Among skaters, the club’s past two first-rounders — forward Hunter Haight and defenceman Beau Akey — will have a significant role to play among newcomers.
Another Beau, this one a forward in Beau Jelsma, a third-rounder in 2020, showed well at the special Erie evaluation tournament in June.
For what it’s worth, all OHL clubs are full of questions, even if most don’t have to wait to hear about the status of an NHL first-rounder’s potential return like the Colts are now doing with Foerster.
Soo Greyhounds GM Kyle Raftis and Kitchener Rangers head coach/GM Mike McKenzie have both acknowledged evaluation difficulties in the absence of live games at both the OHL and minor hockey level over the past 18 months.
Raftis has previously said he normally has a good book on Greyhounds prospects within a few months of drafting them, but has acknowledged he had “almost no contact” with those players during the COVID shutdown.
“It’s been different, a lot different,” McKenzie said prior to the summer. “I’m not sure anyone will really know for sure until training camp is finished and we all are back playing games.”
That time is now beginning.
COLTS PRE-SEASON SCHEDULE
Monday, Sept. 6 — Owen Sound at Barrie, 6 p.m.
Friday, Sept. 10 — Barrie at Kitchener, 7:30 p.m.
Saturday, Sept. 18 — Kitchener at Barrie, 7:30 p.m.
Friday, Sept. 24 — Barrie at London, 7:30 p.m.
Saturday, Sept. 25 — Barrie at Owen Sound, 7 p.m.
Thursday, Sept. 30 — London at Barrie, 7:30 p.m.