In March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic changed the world, and so did the natural development of Ontario Hockey League (OHL) players. If you were a top NHL prospect, like Quinton Byfield of the Los Angeles Kings, there was a good chance that your team sent you to the American Hockey League (AHL). Not every player had that luxury, either heading to Europe to find a league or not play at all.
For James Hardie, a left-winger on the Mississauga Steelheads, the only game action he saw was the Erie Junior Showcase in June 2020. The tournament was designed for players like Hardie, who hadn’t played for the past year. Imagine being a draft-eligible prospect and not having a chance to show the improvements in your game. Everything they’d worked towards was going unnoticed by many.
This is not the first nor the last time that he has or will face adversity. Being undrafted in the past two drafts, Hardie knows it will be an uphill battle to make it to the NHL. He’s made strides in improving his chances over the past month, including getting invited to the Toronto Maple Leafs‘ development camp.
Attending Maple Leafs Development Camp
Getting the invitation to Maple Leafs’ development camp was a special moment. “It was exciting. Everybody that lives in this area’s [Southern Ontario] dream is to play for the Leafs and put that jersey on,” said Hardie. “It’s probably the best organization in the NHL.”
His most significant opportunity was working with Dr. Hayley Wickenheiser, the organization’s senior director of player development, and the knowledge that she imparted to him. “She was always so supportive and helpful. She’s probably the greatest female hockey player ever to play. Being on the ice and talking to her, it’s evident that she knows so much.”
A few conversations with Wickenheiser will stick with him. “She told me that if I’m not scoring, to make sure that I’m making other plays and helping my teammates,” Hardie said. “Making smart decisions that will get you noticed.”
Besides learning from Toronto’s development staff, he also learned from one of the team’s leaders. Nick Robertson has played against him since their days in the Greater Toronto Hockey League (GTHL), but they were skating on the same side of the ice this time. After watching Robertson dominate the scrimmages and seeing his skill on display, Hardie believed that he was the best player on the ice.
“It’s pretty obvious that Nick Roberston was the best player. He’s just a professional already, and I think he’ll play in the NHL this season. His work ethic is something to look up to.”
Making a good first impression with the Maple Leafs was an excellent start for Hardie, but he has bigger plans for the upcoming OHL season.
His Expectations Heading Into the Season
Having not seen any game action for the past 18 months, all Hardie could do was train and prepare for the OHL to start up, not knowing when that would happen. He believes that he has improved as a player despite the limitations since he last suited up for the Steelheads.
“I have improved a lot. After the first draft, I trained with a few Toronto Marlies players for a brief period. To see how much different it is than junior hockey is what helped my game.”
He is a scoring winger who is very positionally aware in the offensive zone. He finds space for himself and is deceptively fast. His breakout campaign was in 2019-20 when he scored 34 goals and 63 points in 59 games as an 18-year-old.
He grew up idolizing Alexander Ovechkin, and seeing Auston Matthews dominate in his young career, they both became role models that Hardie looks up to. “The way [Matthews] shoots the puck and the way he goes about his life is just amazing.”
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Despite scoring at a 36-goal pace over a prorated 68-game season, Hardie believes he can reach another level. Winning the Eddie Powers Memorial Trophy or OHL Overage Player of the Year is in sight for him.
“I can get up there for sure. If I play my game and shoot the puck, I know it’s going to go in. If I keep shooting, I can get close.”
Hardie: Steelheads Are an Underrated Team
The Steelheads finished the 2019-20 season sixth in the Eastern Conference, with a 27-29-4-1 record. Coming off the extended break, there has been an enormous roster turnover with players aging out and younger players being brought into the fold. Hardie believes that this new group is going to surprise people. The days of Owen Tippett and Thomas Harley are now over, but the future looks bright.
“We are a younger group, but a lot of teams are in that situation. I believe that we have a lot of fast forwards and players that play with skill. We have a solid defense behind us and a very great goaltender. Teams are in for a very rude awakening when they play us.”
Since becoming a franchise in 2012, the Steelheads have not won a Memorial Cup and are looking to cement themselves as contenders. They will need to win an OHL championship before getting to that stage, as their deepest run was in the 2016-17 season when they lost to the Erie Otters in the OHL final.
Besides playing hockey, Hardie enjoys getting away when he can and playing golf with his teammates. When all the rinks were closed, and there was nothing else to do, he could return to a sport he’s been playing since he was five years old. When asked who is the best golfer on the team, he didn’t hesitate.
“I don’t want to be a bragger, but I think it’s me.”
The past year and a half have been a whirlwind for Hardie, and he has handled it with pride. He trained with professionals, participated in any game action he could, and joined the Maple Leafs’ development camp. Going undrafted in two consecutive drafts when you’re on the brink can either make or break a player. He is eager to prove his doubters wrong, and that starts with a dominant OHL season in 2021-22.
He scored two goals in the Steelhead’s first regular-season game in a 7-2 win over the Kingston Fronteancs, so it is a promising start for the 19-year-old.