Teenage power-forward Justin Bailey had every opportunity to continue his career in either the Canadian Hockey League or the United States Hockey League prior to the start of the 2011-12 season.
He did neither. Instead, the 6-foot-3, 182-pound Bailey, who was living in Buffalo with his mother, decided to spend a season under the watchful eye of coaches Pat LaFontaine
and Steve Webb
with the Long Island Royals Midget Under-16 National team.
Bailey gains feedback from professionals
Forward Justin Bailey of the Long Island Royals Midget National Team has spent much of his adolescent life in the company of professional athletes.
His father, Carlton Bailey, spent a decade in the NFL as a linebacker and made three trips to the Super Bowl with the Buffalo Bills. Today, Justin is coached by Hockey Hall of Famer Pat LaFontaine
and former New York Islander Steve Webb
When he lived in Buffalo with his mother (Karen Buscaglia), he was introduced to former Sabres' Rob Ray, Michael Peca
and Matthew Barnaby
, all of whom lived in his condominium complex.
"I still keep in touch with Barnaby the most out of all of them," Bailey said. "He kind of taught me the mental aspect and what to do each season, the things to work on. He's been there and done that."
He also received a recommendation from Danny Briere
, through a friend, to give the book, "Mind Gym: An Athlete's Guide to Inner Excellence," written by co-authors Gary Mack and David Casstevens a good read. The 16-year-old power forward admits the book was inspiring.
"It was great to have a guy like that show me a book to help my game," Bailey said. "I was probably 11 or 12 years old and I actually bought another copy to re-read it. The thing that I think separates a good hockey player from a great hockey player is dedication and work ethic. If you can get a mental edge over guys, you'll be set. That's what the book describes."
Bailey has always been impressed with Briere's style of play.
"He's so calm on the ice, so silent, and he scores a lot of goals," Bailey said. "Hearing a recommendation from a guy like that to read that book was great because I knew it would help my game."
-- Mike G. Morreale
"I'm sure all summer he was tugging at this and trying to make the proper decision," Webb told NHL.com. "To take the path that isn't as sexy to the outside world and might not be the quickest route with the older hockey players was obviously a family decision."
Bailey is actually living with LaFontaine during his stay in Long Island.
"It also shows he wants to improve and not just be a one-dimensional player. He wants to be the best player he could possibly be," Webb said. "He's willing to sacrifice and be disciplined and he's committed to being an athlete and that's a great quality to have. He's someone willing to not rush the process because the process is a big part of your overall success."
Bailey, in his first year with the Royals organization, said he did receive some flak from outsiders following his decision to join the Royals. But he refused to let it affect him.
"There were people who criticized me for not going to the USHL [with the Indiana Ice] or OHL, which is kind of the route that most of the better players from the U.S. and Canada take," Bailey said. "But talking to Pat, who's a Hall of Famer, I have to take his word on it and if he got to where he was doing it this way, then I think I could do the same."
Not that LaFontaine or Webb would have stopped Bailey from making the jump to junior hockey, but there's no question they're awfully glad he decided to spend a year with the Royals.
"Pat is kind of a big idol," said Bailey, who was selected by the Ontario Hockey League's Kitchener Rangers in the seventh round (No. 128) of the 2011 OHL priority draft.
"It's good to have a guy like that mentor me and kind of teach me the ways of the psychological game," he said. "He's very good with X's and O's and fine-tuning my game, whether it's shooting, finishing all your checks or forechecks."
LaFontaine has been very impressed with Bailey's speed and quick release for a big man.
"He's got tremendous quickness and speed to go along with that size," LaFontaine said. "He'll continue to fill out as a player, but his puck control and release are something … he's got a big-time shot already at 16 years old."
Bailey, who is among the top three in scoring on the team, is eligible for the 2013 NHL Draft.
"If he wants to be a professional hockey player, he's going to have to make some decisions next year and whatever avenue he chooses, he'll have to make sure he's going to a place where he can develop and get as much exposure as possible to the NHL scouts," Webb said. "I do think he has a lot of the tools and I think he shows a lot of upside; he's definitely a blue chip prospect. I believe having Pat (LaFontaine) being able to give him advice will only increase his opportunity to becoming a great athlete."
Based on his work ethic on and off the ice, that shouldn't be too much of a problem. Bailey has a black notebook in which he usually jots down ideas and plots areas in which he feels he needs to improve.
"As I get better, I'll check off things but I like to work on my skills a lot," Bailey said. "I watch the game highlights straight off NHL Network of the nights before to get moves and see what they're doing. One of my favorite teams has always been Montreal and when they had Alexei Kovalev
, he probably had one of the best shots I've ever seen, so that kind of gave me the drive to get a good shot and work on it a lot."
Despite his impressive resume, Webb knows there are areas Bailey can improve.
"If he can get any faster, that's very impressive … his shot is already NHL caliber and he has that power so it comes down to the essentials of hockey knowledge and knowing how things are developing and knowing what to look for when you have the puck," Webb said. "Through our conversations, he knows his hockey IQ can go up so that's what we're really focused on. By the end of the year, he should be able to do things more instinctively than robotic."
Both Webb and LaFontaine also appreciate the fact Bailey is a team player.
"One of the things we've strived to make certain is that the team comes first, and everybody works on their skill and talent, but off the ice, there has to be that chemistry and the guys have to root for each other and Justin fits right in," LaFontaine said.
"There are a lot of tools in the toolbox and we just have to make sure the toolbox is always open," Webb said. "He's really good in-tight. He has a very quick release; not necessarily soft hands but just really quick hands. He's a star player on our team, and if he can just build confidence this year and really focus on developing his overall game, he'll have the basic tools that everyone would love in a hockey player."
Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale