Junior Leagues

Local hockey players attempt to salvage playing futures

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By Stuart Miller-Davis

While the pandemic has brought on challenges for people in all walks of life, it’s created potential career-altering obstacles for hockey prospects – and those in the nation’s capital have been no exception.

Public health guidelines forced the closure of hockey arenas late last season. Gyms have been periodically shuttered too, forcing players to find off-season training alternatives. Modified or even nullified seasons are now making it hard for scouts to judge prospects, and the unpredictable status of when Canada’s borders might open are making players think twice about a playing career in the U.S. or elsewhere.

The Ottawa Sports Pages spoke to three Ottawa-area players who are navigating the uncertainty as they try to push their game to the next level.

Ethan Mulhearn. Photo provided.

Ethan Mulhearn

Mulhearn joined the Ottawa Jr. Senators via trade in August of 2019. During his first season in Ottawa, the 20-year-old Williamstown, Ont.-native set career highs in goals (21), assists (21) and points.

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Mulhearn said that ever since he entered the CCHL with the Cornwall Colts as a 16-year-old, he viewed it as an opportunity.

“My goal was then to play junior hockey here and use that to further myself,” he said. 

His goal remains to continue playing hockey while completing a post-secondary education, but the pandemic has challenged his first choice of playing in the NCAA. So far, he has been unable to visit any prospective universities because of the restrictions in place.

“You really can’t go down there, and you can’t get a feel for the university and the coaches that run the program on the phone and in text messages.”

In terms of working out in the summer, Mulhearn said he didn’t face a problem when gyms were closed because of his own at-home set up in Nepean where he lives with family. Over the summer, his problem was getting on the ice. He didn’t skate at all from March, when the CCHL postponed its playoffs, until July, when Jr. Sens head coach Martin Dagenais contacted him to let him know he had some rink-time available. 

“It was probably the longest stint I have gone in the last few years to not be on the ice,” he said. “Up till that point it was a lot of rollerblading outside.”

The CCHL usually starts its regular season in September, but it’s been delayed due to the pandemic.

Ryan Park. Photo: Robert Lefebvre

Ryan Park

Park moved to Ottawa to join the Kanata Lasers (CCHL) at the start of the 2018-19 season. Originally from Oakville, Ont., Park is now a member of the Navan Grads.

For him, the lack of on-ice action has been a challenge, but so has how the limited games are being played. The CCHL has allowed exhibition games between teams that are bubbled in pairs. Under its return-to-play rules, the exhibitions are limited to non-contact scrimmages.

“We’re not allowed to play contact and for everybody it’s a big adjustment because we’re so used to playing contact,” Park said. “It’s definitely changed the way I play. I think for the schools watching it’s tough for them to get a read on players when there’s no contact and then expect them to go to school with contact.”

Like Mulhearn, Park came to the CCHL looking to further his game south of the border in the NCAA, but the pandemic has made him question whether that’s still an option.

“There’s a lot more to take into consideration with COVID and the U.S. having such high case numbers,” he said. “I have definitely put some thought into Canadian schools because with everything going on, I don’t want to go down there and have my season cancelled or something like that.”

Park, who lives in Nepean, said that when rinks closed his training turned to a lot of cardio, including running outside in the snow. He said luckily he had some weights around the house to do some strength training as well.

Abbey McMillan. Photo provided

Abbey McMillan

In March, when the pandemic cancelled the provincial championships and try-outs for the next season, the Nepean Wildcats’ McMillan, 17, was thrust into a stressful situation.

“I wasn’t sure if I just played my last game or something because we didn’t know what the impact would be,” she said. 

The Glebe Collegiate senior, who is taking classes online this year, wants to play hockey at a Canadian university next year. But for her, the path to achieving that goal looks murky.

In lieu of spring tryouts, the Wildcats selected players this season based on their play last year. McMillan retained a roster spot.

The Ottawa District Women’s Hockey Association (ODWHA) season would typically be in full swing by December, but it has not started yet. In a press release on its website in July, the ODWHA said it will not be releasing any return-to-play policies until further direction from the Ontario Women’s Hockey Association. 

“At this point we would’ve been to a bunch of tournaments like showcases where there would be scouts and people watching you,” she said.

Having not secured a commitment from any university program to this point, she said she may explore walk-on opportunities or try-outs wherever she decides to go to school.

At the moment, McMillan said she’s just glad she’s able to play hockey. 

The Wildcats recently started scrimmaging after bubbling-up with the Ottawa Lady 67’s. The teams have split into smaller groups to play four-on-four games once a week. Her team also practises four times a week.

“I’m just really grateful that we even had a chance to play hockey this year,” she said. “I’m lucky that Ottawa has reopened for hockey a bit and we’re able to play games, because I know that many places are not playing games at all.”

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