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PLAYING FIELD: Locally bred OHLers navigate league stoppages with frustration

Alec Belanger, Mitchell Weeks and James Hardie all at crucial points of their development

In retrospect, Mitchell Weeks' first win as an Ontario Hockey League goaltender was especially memorable.

A Barrie kid, 17 years old at the time, backstopped the Sudbury Wolves to a win over the Colts at the Barrie Molson Centre.

“It was a pretty awesome experience,” Weeks remembers. “Especially with my family there.”

His OHL journey since that time hasn’t always been awesome. Now 20, he was born in one of two birth years (2001 and 2002), cohorts that have taken the blunt end of pandemic restrictions.

“I would say frustrated, rather than angry,” was his response when asked if he ever feels mad about what has transpired. “I would have been huge to come back after my second year (playing 30 games in 2020-21) and get a third year in (before this one).”

Weeks is one of three players – a goalie, a defenceman and a forward – from the Barrie area who have all established themselves as upper-echelon OHLers born in 2001 or 2002 who played minor hockey in town.

Mississauga Steelheads sniper James Hardie and Kingston Frontenacs blue-liner Alec Belanger are the others.

All three young men maintain an easy way about them and demonstrated a remarkable outlook during recent telephone chats.

“Our job is to play hockey and try to appreciate (and) take advantage of every moment we possibly can,” Belanger tells BarrieToday.

“Hockey is hockey,” Hardie says of the awkward situation brought on by postponed games and empty arenas lately when they do take place, “…but it’s different for sure.”

Belanger’s story is probably the most difficult to digest. To hear him tell it, you must listen closely to follow all the twists and turns. He made the Ottawa 67’s as a rookie in 2018-19. They lost in the OHL final to the Guelph Storm and Belanger is one of just three remaining, active OHL players to have played in a league championship series.

Fast forward to the next season in 2019-20: the 67’s were rampaging through the OHL schedule and ranked the No. 1 team in the country before COVID hit. The season was scrapped in late March 2020, a disappointing outcome for most, but devastating for players like Belanger given what happened next.

He bided his time in the fall of 2020 and then headed to Europe to wait out what was expected to be a late OHL start to the season.

Except, that start never happened and the Finnish league halted its season.

He stayed in Europe to wait for a restart, training and living with a Latvian teammate and was optimistic there would be a resolution. But Belanger eventually had to return home to avoid punitive fees that were being charged to quarantine at the airport, a cruel example of an amateur athlete facing real-world financial pressures no teenager should have to negotiate.

In the end, the OHL cancelled its season again and Belanger played just three games in Finland. He spent last summer framing houses and waited for this OHL season to begin in the fall. He injured his wrist in his first exhibition game against the Frontenacs, his future club after a trade from the 67’s last week.

“Well, the guy who hit me is now my teammate,” he explains. “And he’s a great guy, too.”

Belanger is now just happy to be playing for a contender again and that the recovery was about half of what was originally expected.

“I have an opportunity to play and try and win the Memorial Cup,” he says, leaving out the fact he may have already won it had the 2019-20 OHL season not been squelched.

Weeks, Hardie and Belanger also represent other unique aspects of junior hockey that COVID has amplified.

As a pick in the U18 Draft, Weeks is perhaps the best example league-wide of the usefulness of that selection process  and of not giving up on yourself if you go unselected in the OHL Priority Selection, the conventional path to the league.

And speaking of undrafted, there is a puzzling element to both Hardie and Belanger’s lack of selection in the delayed 2020 NHL Draft that was held virtually in October that year, four months later than planned.

There were few OHL players more dangerous around the net than Hardie. Scouts were unconvinced, concerned about his two-way game and he never heard his name called during that painful two-day virtual process 15 months ago.

Despite last season’s inaction – several weeks spent practising with the American Hockey League’s Toronto Marlies aside – Hardie has worked rounding out his game.

He remains a deadly presence around the net with 26 goals and he should blow past the 34 he scored in 59 games two years ago.

“I can only control what I can,” he says, adding he’s working on his play without the puck and showing more of an edge with and without it on his blade along the boards.

Belanger was buried on a star-studded 67’s team and still put up 32 points (10G, 22A) in 2019-20. He even filled-in at forward and Ottawa coach Andre Tourigny, now head coach of the Arizona Coyotes, admired his young player’s determination to play multiple positions.

Kyle Woodlief, chief scout of the respected independent newsletter Red Line Report, pegged Belanger as a mid-round selection but he never got a sniff.

The Weeks/Belanger/Hardie trio is a quartet: Tyson Foerster, of Alliston, is a Barrie Minor Hockey graduate who was taken in the first round (23rd overall) by the Philadelphia Flyers. As a drafted player, Foerster was able to play with the Flyers’ American Hockey League affiliate in Lehigh Valley last season but has been injured for much of the past calendar year.

With so much invested in draft picks, especially first-rounders, the Flyers will give Foerster every opportunity to blossom into an NHL player. Isaak Phillips, another local product, is a 2001-born former teammate of Weeks in Sudbury. A pick of the Chicago Blackhawks, Phillips has blossomed in the AHL and already suited up in three NHL games this season.

For Weeks, Belanger and Hardie, they are still trying to create even a sliver of that sort of opportunity, like the one Weeks got two years ago when he took part in the Coyotes development camp.

Belanger and Hardie are pondering their options and open to returning to their clubs as overage players next season. Before then, it’s not hard to imagine Hardie’s Steelheads meeting Belanger’s new team in a key conference playoff series this spring.

In his final season, Weeks’ primary objective is to continue to play well, perhaps pick up another OHL goaltender honour like the one he got last week after beating Belanger’s Frontenacs in a game broadcast on TSN, to help the Wolves squeak into the playoffs.

With almost 30 games remaining on each team’s schedule over the next 10 weeks, it’s an excellent opportunity to create happy OHL memories. Like three years ago at the BMC, when the Weeks family looked on with pride. And the world was normal.

Fate surely owes these three young men a favour.