By Aaron Bell
For even the best OHL rookies, the first few months of their OHL careers can be trying.
Most of them are living away from home for the first time and are adjusting to the professional-hockey lifestyle of playing in the Ontario Hockey League, not to mention playing with and against older players with more experience.
21 of the OHL’s top first year players will get a chance to get back to playing with their peers this week when they represent Ontario at the World Under-17 Challenge in Windsor.
Team Ontario coach Troy Smith, an assistant coach with the Kitchener Rangers, thinks that this tournament is a terrific chance for these players to get back into the mode of being stars.
“You come to the OHL, kids have to step back,” Smith told The Windsor Star. “I think (this tournament) is a good thing. It’s a great opportunity to get back with their peer group.
“It’s a real good stepping stone for guys to get confidence back.”
The Ontario squad has 18 first round OHL draft picks including Aaron Ekblad of the Barrie Colts, Nicholas Ritchie of the Peterborough Petes, Darnell Nurse of the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, Ryan Kujawinski of the Sarnia Sting and Jordan Subban of the Belleville Bulls, the top five picks in the OHL Priority Selection last spring.
Ontario opens the tournament on Thursday against Germany at the WFCU Centre in Windsor.
“It’s not every day you get an opportunity like this,” Nurse told The Sault Star. “I’m honoured to represent the province in this prestigious tournament.
“International experience is key for development. Playing against the best players in the world is nothing but a positive.”
Windsor Spitfires’ rookies Adam Bateman and Jordan Maletta are both anxious to play in the tournament on home ice.
“It’s going to be exciting to play against kids my own age,” said Maletta, the 13th overall pick last May. “This was big for me this season and I can’t wait. I just want to do whatever I can to help the team win and bring home gold and I know a lot of guys are excited to play in Windsor. It’s a great facility and great fans.”
Bateman sees this tournament as a great opportunity to showcase his skills for Hockey Canada.
“All world junior players go through this and this is a very good team,” Bateman said. “There’s a lot of talent and you have to go through the baby steps. This is a stepping stone that leads up to that.”
Ekblad, who gained exceptional status last spring to enter the OHL as an underage player, will also be playing on home ice. He is a Belle River native and is looking forward to playing in the Under-17’s at home.
“It’s a prestigious tournament,” said Ekblad, who played minor hockey with the Sun County Panthers. “I’m looking forward to playing at home and feeling the love and support from my family and friends.”