Hockey dreams have turned into one aspect of reality for a number of youngsters with northern Ontario roots and associations.
As 30 players from 18 different Ontario Hockey League teams were selected at the recent 2021 National Hockey League draft, a number of them have a connection to the Great North Under 18 Hockey League and the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League.
For starters, right winger Chase Stillman of the OHL’s Sudbury Wolves became a first round pick of the New Jersey Devils, who took him in the first round, 29th overall, at this year’s NHL draft.
Before Stillman was drafted into the OHL by Sudbury in 2019, he played a full season with the Sudbury Minor Wolves of the Great North U18 and got into eight games as an affiliate player with the Rayside Balfour Canadians of the NOJHL.
After New Jersey went for Stillman late in the first round, big goalie Ben Gaudreau became a third round selection of the San Jose Sharks.
Hailing from the North Bay area town of Corbeil, Gaudreau was a standout for the North Bay Major Trappers of the Great North U18 loop and became a first round pick — which is very rare for a goalie — by the Sarnia Sting at the 2019 OHL priority selections draft.
A small town lad known for his compete level and being the best goalie prospect to come out of northern Ontario in many, many years, Gaudreau was virtually speechless when I asked him what it felt like to become an NHL draft pick.
“I think for me it is just a dream come true … I couldn’t ask for a better outcome of the draft!” he exclaimed.
Then came hulking defenseman Jack Matier, who is from Sault Ste. Marie. Matier is now the NHL property of the Nashville Predators, who used a fourth round pick on the right hand shooting defender.
Previously, Matier starred for the Soo’s Great North U18 team and got into an NOJHL game with his hometown Thunderbirds before being nabbed by the Ottawa 67’s in the first round of the 2019 OHL priority selections draft.
Meanwhile, forward Max McCue is a Great North grad of the Sudbury Minor Wolves who became an OHL draft pick of the London Knights in 2019. McCue also saw six games of NOJHL action with the French River Rapids.
And McCue now has an NHL affiliation as a fifth round selection by the San Jose Sharks and a potential future pro teammate of the aforementioned Ben Gaudreau.
Then there is 6-foot-6 goalie Joe Vrbetic, who was taken by the North Bay Battalion at the 2018 OHL priority selections draft. Before suiting up for the Battalion as its starting goalie for the 2019-2020 OHL campaign, Vrbetic spent a full season in the NOJHL in 2018-2019 and was a standout for the Powassan Voodoos.
And at this year’s NHL draft, the Stanley Cup finalist Montreal Canadiens took note of the big goalie and made him a seventh round draft selection. Of note, Vrebetic has a late 2002 birth date and does not turn 19 until October 24 of this year.
Making it to the OHL from good development leagues such as the Great North U18 and the junior A level NOJHL is one thing. But then to get drafted by an NHL team and get one step closer to making it to the ‘Show’ is something else indeed.
Just ask Soo boy Matier.
“It really is like a dream come true,” Matier told me, after becoming an NHL draft pick by Nashville. “Not only that, I had my family with me and we were watching on TV Nashville when picked me. That moment is definitely something that I will never forget.”