The COVID-19 pandemic brought everything in the world to a halt, including the sports world. Many hockey leagues at all levels saw their season postponed or even cancelled as a result of the highly contagious virus.
While many other major junior leagues managed to start up and saw their players hit the ice in 2020-21, the Ontario Hockey League was the only one not to resume. There was constant back and forth of a return to play plan, but it amounted to nothing. Even the Ontario Junior Hockey League saw it’s season cancelled.
It was a lost season for many players looking to further their development, especially for those that were up for the 2022 NHL Draft. Despite the lost season, many of the top prospects from the OHL managed to find success in 2021-22 and still prove their worth.
Shane Wright Controlling What He Can
Coming in as the presumptive first overall pick in the 2022 NHL Draft, all eyes were on Kingston Frontenacs captain Shane Wright. After a dominating rookie campaign where he scored 39 goals and 66 points, Wright– along with many other OHLers– missed out on a full season.
When the OHL was given the green light to return, it was an adjustment period for everyone, including the top pick in the NHL Draft when the season started up.
“It was definitely a struggle for me to start, but I feel that once I got my legs under me, I definitely improved,” Wright said on his start to the season at the NHL Draft Combine. “Any time when you miss that amount of time without being able to play games is definitely going to be tough, definitely an adjustment at the start.”
Related: THW 2022 NHL Draft Guide
When you’re the first overall pick, you’re bound to garner a lot of the attention. Even though his start to the season wasn’t like his rookie season and his play at the World Juniors – before it’s cancellation– was just average, scouts started to question his play and impact as a first overall pick. Despite the noise and talk, Wright maintained a positive mindset through it all.
“I think just kind of focus on stuff that really matters, kind of control what you can control,” Wright said. “You can’t really focus on what people are saying in the media or what people are saying about you online or on social media. You really got to just focus on yourself and kind of just be yourself, be a good teammate and just do the things that you can control.”
Wright went on a tear down the stretch as he finished in the top-10 in league scoring with 94 points. His strong, two-way play continued into postseason, showing that he can rise above to the occasion and prove everyone wrong.
Battalion’s Nelson More Determined Than Ever
There’s so much to like about Ty Nelson’s game as he was the first overall pick in the 2020 OHL Priority Selection Draft by the North Bay Battalion. He’s quick, agile, has a powerful shot and plays a bigger and physical game than his size (5-foot-10) says. Right when he was getting drafted, the pause was already in effect due to the pandemic.
Nelson reflected on that transition, despite missing a full season because of COVID.
“It was pretty difficult,” Nelson said. “For myself, I really tried to take advantage of COVID, either get into the gym every day, outside stick-handling or getting on the ice when I could.
“The first couple of games obviously were tough, just adjusting to the older guys and the speed and the pace of the game. I think I did a pretty good job adjusting and I think it probably took me a couple of games to get back to playing my way.”
Despite the missed time, Nelson’s game took off quicker than expected. Given the strength that he possesses and the high-octane offensive game he plays, Nelson showed great consistency throughout the season as he finished sixth in rookie scoring with 51 points and first in assists with 42. Ranked 32nd among North American skaters, Nelson played a critical role for the Battalion. They made a deep playoff run as Nelson contributed 10 assists in 13 games, only to be swept by the dominant Hamilton Bulldogs.
“For myself, personally it was a lot of a learning experience,” Nelson said. “As a first-year player to be able to go that far, we’re really looking forward to next year and we want to be on the other side of that winning side on the Eastern Conference Finals next year.
“We exceeded a lot of people’s expectations of ourselves. I think it was a lot during the year we came together really tightly as a group and I think that’s what helped us go so far.”
McConnell-Barker Learned to Make Adjustments
Drafted fourth overall by the Soo Greyhounds in the 2020 OHL Priority Selection Draft, centre Bryce McConnell-Barker was a highly sought after prospect with his shot and two-way abilities.
Missing out on a full season and then coming back, McConnell-Barker did his best to manage the missed time and even getting the feel back on the ice.
“It’s going to take a little bit to get used to the league. I put in a lot of work over the [offseason] to get prepared for the year to come. I don’t think it took me too long to adjust to the league, I thought quickly, got used to it and played good hockey.”
The pace was definitely something that McConnell-Barker took note of when he kicked off his rookie season. “Adjusting to the pace and having to do that quickly without having that original first year, that was the biggest challenge, but I thought I did a good job.”
McConnell-Barker was further down the depth chart to start the season on a deep Greyhounds team, but was able to work his way up to the top-six when the opportunity called. He managed to finish ninth in rookie scoring with 49 points. Modelling his game after Tampa Bay Lightning winger Ondrej Palat, his competitive edge was always noticeable when he was on the ice.
“For a rookie year, I thought I had a really good season. You know not satisfied, definitely could’ve been better in some areas. Overall, I’m happy. We had a good team, had a lot of fun and we made it pretty far in the playoffs. Not as far as we wanted to, but overall, a really good and fun year for me.”
It wasn’t easy for anyone during the last two years or so. If there’s one thing that McConnell-Barker took note of during this difficult time, it was always coming back and finding the desire he has for the game.
“I learned how passionate I am and how much I love hockey. It was tough going over a year without playing hockey games. It was definitely tough mentally for me, but just having a normal season this year was really good.”
Despite facing a very tough hurdle with a missed season, Wright, Nelson and McConnell-Barker all managed to find success in their draft year. From high-end production to runs in the playoffs, they made their mark and proved that a cancelled season wouldn’t slow them down.
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Peter is in his third year with The Hockey Writers, covering the Toronto Maple Leafs and heading the Draft and Prospects section. He has previously interned at The Hockey News and worked on Toronto Marlies broadcasts for Rogers TV. He currently is the co-host of the podcast Sticks in the 6ix and a frequent guest on Maple Leafs Lounge. Aside from hockey, he also enjoys drumming, animation and impressions/ voices.