KITCHENER, Ont. — Shane Wright faced the same uncertainty every junior hockey player experienced the last two years.
The shutdowns, restarts, postponements and cancellations brought on by COVID-19 – that pit-in-your-stomach feeling of not knowing what’s around the next corner when there are plenty of questions and very few answers.
And unlike everyone else in his draft class, Wright had to do it under an intense spotlight.
“I’ve just adapted,” said the 18-year-old centre. “It’s on me … no one else is living through it.”
After being forced to sit out all of last season when the Ontario Hockey League was unable to get off the ground because of the pandemic, Wright is back to a level of normalcy.
Following an admittedly slow start to the 2021-22 campaign, he has 25 goals and 77 points in 52 games with the Kingston Frontenacs to cement himself atop the NHL Central Scouting Bureau’s midterm list as the top-ranked North American skater heading into July’s draft.
“He’s still the No. 1 pick,” said Dan Marr, the director of NHL Central Scouting. “Right now, he’s at the top of his game. He’s in a good zone.”
Wright, who made Canada’s world junior team in December before the tournament was scrapped by COVID-19, and 39 other draft-eligible players in the Canadian Hockey League will put their skills on display Wednesday in the 2022 Kubota CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game as the showcase returns after being axed last season.
“This event is a big one,” said Matthew Savoie, the No. 3-ranked North American skater of the Western Hockey League’s Winnipeg Ice.
“I’m just grateful and thankful to be a part of it.”
Marr said the teenagers in the 2022 draft class have basically crammed 18 months of development into half a year.
“A lot of credit to these kids for their resilience and their dedication,” he said. “They’ve had to handle a lot of adversity and figure out how to show up to the rink, get their workouts in. They’ve had to find ways to get things done. It hasn’t just been a laid out, well-planned path.
“In some ways, they’ll benefit from this down the road.”
Winnipeg centre Conor Geekie, who’s ranked just behind Savoie at No. 4 in North America, said he took a family motto to heart during the pandemic.
“You can’t really control COVID,” he said. “I know a lot of people may have tried, but I think for the most part you’ve just got to be yourself and go through whatever it’s taking you through.
“Obviously, I don’t want to be shut down. Yes, it’s a little annoying, a little stressful. But you’ve got to go with the flow.”
Tyler Brennan of the WHL’s Prince George Cougars took a similar approach, but added the mental side of things were difficult at times.
“It was definitely tough not knowing what was going on,” said the top-ranked North American goaltender. “You had to have an open mind.”
While the OHL was dormant, the WHL and the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League were able to stage some games in 2020-21, but it was far from a normal season for players still growing and developing.
All three leagues are back this term, although there were a number of postponements earlier in the schedule because of coronavirus outbreaks.
“I try to see the good side of it where we could train more,” said Gatineau Olympiques defenceman Tristan Luneau. “My physical strength is something I got to improve. I really worked on that last year.
“And then this year … fans, no fans, been a little bit of up and down. But we play games and that’s all we want. We’ve been trying to make the most out of it.”
That pivot to focusing on getting better in the gym and using the time off as a positive was a common theme among players aching to see live action.
“A lot of people take for granted the break that COVID gave,” said Geekie, who stands six foot three, weighs 193 pounds, and doesn’t turn 18 until May. “Being a big guy growing up, it was always hard to catch up to my body and gain strength.
“I got that chance to work out and get bigger and get stronger.”
And because of what amounted to a lost season for many – much like the 2021 draft class – there have been fewer eyeballs on these prospects compared to anything that came before.
“We’ve had quite a few unfortunate times in the last couple years where stuff’s been shut down,” said Denton Mateychuk, a blue-liner with the WHL’s Moose Jaw Warriors and the ninth-ranked North American skater. “To have this game for scouting and show what you can do against other top players, it’s very important.”
“We all want to show what we got,” Luneau added. “The good mindset is being true to ourselves and not trying to overdo things.”
Nationally televised and featuring celebrity coaches, Wednesday’s game represents another step back to normal life for players who, like many people in society, have dealt with a lot over the last two years.
“Super thankful to have this opportunity,” Wright said. “Definitely something you have circled on your calendar.
“Something you look forward to.”
And probably one of the things these teenagers thought about on those lonely, quiet days and nights when the rinks sat dormant.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 22, 2022.
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