Making the jump into the National Hockey League straight from a junior team is no easy task – it’s a grind.
The Barrie Colts of the Ontario Hockey League have helped many players make the jump into the NHL, and the Winnipeg Jets have a close connection with a few of those players.
Jets forward Bryan Little
played for the Colts for four seasons starting in 2004. During his rookie campaign, he recorded 58 points in 64 games and was named the OHL’s Rookie of the Year.
“I didn’t know if I was going to play or not,” said Little. “I got drafted in the third round and they gave me a chance. I had a really good first year and it sort of built from there.”
Barrie is a hockey city in Southern Ontario, about an hour north of Toronto with a population of under 150,000 people.
“It’s an awesome city to play in,” said Little. “I think it’s the perfect junior city. It’s not too small and it’s not too big. The rink is great there and they fill it every weekend. It’s a fun place to play; it was like my second home. I still go there in the summer and hang out.”
A player can stay in the junior leagues for five seasons up until the age of 20. There is a small window of opportunity for these young players to prove that you have what it takes to play in the show.
“One year you come in as a 15- or 16-year old rookie,” said Little. “It’s a short time before you’re an older leader on the team. It’s different than the NHL where I’m in my fourth year, and I’m still considered young and still look up to the older guys.
“It’s different. You have to grow up fast.”
Little captained the Colts during the 2005-06 season and led his team in scoring with a career-high 109 points in 64 games.
They get you ready for that next step, for what it's going to be like when you make that jump from junior to professional. - Bryan Little
“As you get older, the team starts losing players and you get a bigger role, so I started getting more power play time. That was the year of the rule changes so I think everyone’s points went up a bit that year.”
The tremendous season paid off for the Edmonton, Alberta native, as the Atlanta Thrashers drafted him in the first round, 12th overall, at the 2006 NHL Entry Draft.
“Junior is an important stage in your career and it’s where you develop the most,” Little said. “They get you ready for that next step, for what it’s going to be like when you make that jump from junior to professional.”
Jets centre, Alexander Burmistrov
, has also spent some time in Barrie. Burmistrov joined the Colts from Kazan, Russia, after being selected 12th overall at the 2009 CHL Import Draft.
“The first couple of months were hard for me because everything changed in my life,” explained Burmistrov. “I had to learn everything from hockey, to learning a new language.
“It was a great town with great fans and my billet family was unbelievable. Everyone helped me so much.”
The Colts family took him under their wing, taught him English, North American hockey, and the Canadian way of life. After just one short season, he was selected by the Atlanta Thrashers, eighth overall, at the 2010 NHL Entry Draft.
After the 2009-10 season, long-time Colts head coach Marty Williamson resigned from his duties. Winnipeg Jets legend and Hall-of-Famer Dale Hawerchuk, was up for the challenge and was named head coach to start the 2010-11 season.
When only a handful of players returned from the prior year, the Colts would see some new faces and have to rebuild their group. They acquired Mark Scheifele
from Kitchener, Ontario. Under Hawerchuk, Scheifele recorded 75 points (22g, 53a) in 66 games in his rookie season in that rebuilding year.
“It was a tough season,” said Scheifele. “We didn't get the wins that we wanted and we were really young but I think it gave everyone a lot of good experience.”
The 18-year old stressed the importance of having strong support to help push him along to get to that next level. So far, the Barrie Colts have done an excellent job.
“It's a big help if you have a good supporting cast of coaches, teammates and trainers,” said Scheifele. “Having Dale as a coach is an unreal thing because he is able to teach you so much through his experience.
“I'm so happy I've been able to play here. It's a nice city with good people, and it's a really nice place to live. It's definitely a classy organization.”
Scheifele has impressed his head coach, Dale Hawerchuk, “He plays hard, competes hard, wants to win and wants to win battles,” said Hawerchuk. “He just keeps getting better by the minute.”
On June 24th, 2011, Scheifele became the first draft pick of the new Winnipeg Jets, selected seventh overall. He played in the first seven regular season games with the Jets this season before he was returned to Barrie to continue to grow and develop with Hawerchuk and the rest of the Colts family.
“At first I was very disappointed but I look at it that everything happens for a reason,” Scheifele said. “They have plans for me and I trust their judgment. To be back here and able to get a lot more minutes, I think was a good choice by them. It's definitely going to help me in the long run.”
Another Winnipeg Jets prospect, Ivan Telegin
, is also a member of the Barrie Colts. Telegin, an Atlanta Thrashers draft pick in 2010, was acquired by the Colts in the off-season to play alongside Scheifele. So far he is progressing nicely in Barrie and hopes to make the Jets roster next season.
The Winnipeg Jets will keep a close eye on Scheifele, Telegin and the entire Barrie Colts organization, as they continue to develop young junior hockey players into future NHL excellence.