I remember the scene vividly. Immediately following 6:30a.m practice, my coaches called me into a separate room and asked me to sit down. All five of them sitting across from me, they explained how important tomorrow night's game was:
"This is the biggest game of your career so far, their captain, like you, is also one of the best players in Ontario. If we win, people will say you're better than him. We always support you, but if we lose, people are going to blame you and say that he's better than you. Do you want that? Get to sleep early tonight, make sure you eat lots of carbs, protein tomorrow, and drink water all day. When I talk to your teacher, I want to hear from her that you were asking to go to the bathroom all day."
I was 8 years old.
Every parent, and i mean EVERY parent of a child who plays AAA hockey in Ontario believes their child will some day play in the NHL. Most will never even sniff the OHL.
In Ontario, if you're good at hockey you play in the OHL. Period. In many O cities, the players are celebrities among the adults, and heroes among the children. For me, from a young age it was assumed that I was good enough to play in the OHL and probably the NHL. This, of course, was the view of the locals who had a distorted view of just how hard it was to make it.
One summer, I was training with a group of top under-15 players at the local arena. On the arena's second rink was a group of professional players who skated together in the summer. It was either: current NHL players, former NHL players, current OHL players, or the absolute elite from junior B or CIS. They need an extra player and came to our side to see who was playing. The hockey community being relatively small, they recognized me as a top young prospect and asked me to go play with them. I was incredibly excited and nervous. They made me play defense, not my position, but I didn't care. On my second shift, Andy McDonald (current St Louis Blue and former Hobey Baker finalist) came down the wing and put it through my legs, causing me to fall over, and proceeded to score. My teammates were not pleased. About five minutes later, Andy McDonald was coming down the wing again, and I anticipated the same move, but it was a fake. He treated me like a pylon and scored again. Immediately after the goal, Steve Ott (current Dallas Star) came up to me and told me to get off the ice and go back to practice. As I was leaving, I could hear them yelling at each other.
Steve Ott: "Jesus Christ, where'd you find that fuckin guy, you idiot? He cost us two goals."
Steve Downie (TB Lightning): "He's supposed to be one of the best 13 year olds around, I don't know, get off my ass."
That is the culture. Nobody thought it was out of the ordinary to treat a young kid like that. Not even me. Perform or get off the ice. There was probably over $5,000 in bets on that game between the NHL guys. I was costing someone money.
Secretly, I didn't want anything to do with the OHL. Every OHL player I knew seemed like an arrogant idiot with no intelligence to back it up. School was my refuge. I am a nerd who happens to have athletic ability. School was the only aspect of my life where nobody put pressure on me. My cousin, a walk-on football player for Lloyd Carr, turned me into a Michigan fan. He was my hero, ten feet tall to me. He took me to the big house and gave me tickets to the games so I could go with my uncle.
After a game, he arranged for one of the hockey trainers to give me personal tour of Yost Arena and the dressing rooms where the players hung out. The trainer showed me around, explained to me how I couldn't walk on the block M in the middle of the carpet. He told me about all the great Michigan hockey players who were current NHL draft picks, and the others who were now lawyers, doctors and business professionals. Then I watched them play. The atmosphere was shocking to me. The band, the chants, the pretty female students, the winged helmets. I was used to the OHL where leather hats and handle-bar mustaches are the norm. That was it, forget the OHL. I'm going to Michigan.
Over the next two summers, I tried out and made a top-prospects team. There are dozens of teams like this. The teams play in summer tournaments designed to give scouts a chance to see the best players before their draft-year season. While I was probably one of the bottom 2 players on both teams I played on, my teammates included Drew Doughty, Sam Gagner, and Logan Couture.
These tournaments were my first actual contact with scouts. I was honest with them. I told them I was about 50/50 on my decision to play in the OHL or go the college route.
Truth is, I wasn't 50/50 at all. I was 100% on Michigan. The question is, was Michigan 100% on me?
PART 2 TOMORROW: Draft Year/College Recruiting and Beyond