Justin Bailey grew up with professional athletes all around him. As he’s preparing to embark on his own pro career, being around talent is nothing new. The difference: this time, the talent is his.
“Growing up in Buffalo, we (his family) lived in the same condo as Matthew Barnaby, Michael Peca, and Rob Ray,” Bailey said. “Barnaby helped me along the way with a lot of decision-making.”
Being raised in the same building as NHLers clearly influenced the young Kitchener Rangers forward. But they weren’t the only pros who had an impact on Bailey when he was younger. His father, Carlton, was a linebacker in the National Football League for many years, playing for the Buffalo Bills, New York Giants, and Carolina Panthers. But the young draft-eligible will point out that it was his mother and grandparents who truly raised him.
“I have a great family to fall back on,” said Bailey. “In the absence of my father growing up, it was tough. My mom never really gave up on things, she really stayed dedicated and pushed me to be as good as I could be. She always helped me make decisions. Growing up, I don’t think my mom ever missed a game.”
Scouts appreciate Bailey’s combination of size and skating ability. Bailey has an explosive stride that powers him up and down the ice, and he uses it to find opportunities to display his above-average shooting ability.
With the skill he possesses, analysts are high on his potential to excel at the next level. Like most draft-eligible prospects, Bailey’s a raw talent, but it’s clear he’s a step ahead of most.
Bailey skated for the Long Island Royals last season, and as the pattern seems to show, it was fitting NHL legend Pat LaFontaine was his coach. The New York native attributes much of his success to the coaching he received as young player. Living with the former New York Islanders star was an added benefit.
“It was good to have someone you could ask questions when you came home from the rink,” Bailey said.
Steve Webb, an assistant coach with the Royals last season, is confident Bailey can live out a professional career.
“Once he fills into his body, gets bigger, stronger and becomes smarter, he’ll certainly be fun to watch,” said Webb. “I think he’s itching to prove himself.”
While playing for Long Island, Bailey’s team was featured in a series entitled Making of A Royal. Take a look at the clip below focusing on the now-former Royal.
In January 2012, Bailey made a verbal commitment to attend Michigan State and play NCAA hockey for the Spartans. Many expected he would play this season with the Indiana Ice of the United States Hockey League before heading off to East Lansing. But Bailey began to serious consider Kitchener as a possible destination, and after talking to a former neighbour and CHLer in Matthew Barnaby, who played in the QMJHL, Bailey signed with the Rangers this past summer.
“After touring the city and rink, and watching some video, I just kind of had a gut feeling, and something in my head told me this was the right place for me,” Bailey said about his decision to come to Kitchener. “I talked about a lot with my mom because it’s a life decision and I’d being giving up my scholarship to Michigan State.”
While the Spartans were a great option, Bailey felt the Rangers would set him on the right path. At the moment, the choice appears to be working in his favour.
As a rookie in the Ontario Hockey League, Bailey was never expected to come in and start consistently producing points. He’ll admit that he could have played at a higher level last season, meaning it’s been more of a jump for him as a 17-year-old than for many of the 1996 birth-dates who are true freshmen. Even though he’s a year older than those drafted last spring, Bailey has had to earn his way into the Rangers lineup just as much as those a year younger than him.
He looks to a pair of Carolina Hurricanes brothers as role models. Bailey sees skill as a big part of his game, and understands size can only help him the same way it’s helped a certain pair of ‘Canes.
“I think Eric Staal and Jordan Staal are two guys who kind of represent what I’m willing to take my game to. They’re bigger guys but they’re not just guys who just go out there and hit. They are pretty skilled, put up a lot of points each year, and they’re good defensively.”
Bailey has come into Kitchener and shown he’s worthy of being selected in the first two rounds of June’s NHL Draft. The Rangers are now heading in the playoff stretch, and Bailey will be a big part of their core forwards moving into the postseason.
Now is when Rangers fans are hoping all the advice he received growing up pays off the most.
David O’Connor is a managing editor with the Sunbelt Hockey Journal. His writing has been on the Los Angeles Times’ website, among other places. O’Connor also does some scouting work for the local Junior B hockey club. Please feel free to contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.