No place like home for this Colts trio
Mark Wanzel Photo - From left, Tanner Pearson, Colin Behenna and Mark Scheifele will play what could be their last junior game in Kitchener, a city the three players call home when they're not playing for the Barrie Colts.
Tonight's trek to Kitchener to face the Rangers will be far from just another Ontario Hockey League game for a trio of Barrie Colts.
That's because forwards Colin Behenna, Mark Scheifele and Tanner Pearson are heading home.
Stepping inside the historic Kitchener Memorial Auditorium always brings back of flood of memories for the three Colts, but what makes this year's trip even more special is, barring the Rangers and Colts hooking up in this year's OHL finals, it's likely the last time they'll get the chance to play in their hometown in front of family and friends.
"I never even really thought about that, but I guess it would be my last time I'm going home to play in front of the fans and Kitchener Rangers," said Behenna, an overager who hails from nearby Waterloo.
"That (Rangers) program over there is a very high-end program, they bring in a lot of fans and stuff like that," he added. "A lot of the community follows them, so it would be exciting to, hopefully, stick it to them."
Scheifele and Pearson, both natives of Kitchener, had memorable games when they made their first trip to the 'Aud' as rookies in a 7-5 loss last season.
"I got my first OHL goal in that barn, which is something special as well," said Pearson, whom many expect to go late in the first round of the National Hockey League Entry Draft this June and start his pro career next year.
"I'll have lots of family and friends there for me, which should be nice to see them all after the game."
Scheifele, the seventh overall pick of Winnipeg in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, started this season with the Jets and is expected to make the jump to the NHL next season.
"It was unreal last year and that was my first time getting to play in Kitchener in front of the crowd," said Scheifele, who impressed in the contest, finishing with a pair of assists and a plus-3 rating. "It's a great city and I've loved living there my whole life.
"I'm looking forward to play against a bunch of my buddies. There's a lot of guys I know very well on that team, like (Ben) Fanelli and (Ryan) Murphy.
"It will be fun to go back and I think very exciting."
All three Colts grew up watching the Rangers. Pearson was even a stick boy for the team.
Behenna remembers going to the Rangers' Memorial Cup run in 2008 and cheering them on when they hosted the Canadian Hockey League championship.
"They were huge," Behenna said of the Rangers' popularity in town. "Guys like Derek Roy, who played for the Rangers in the past, they were my heroes growing up. They inspired me to keep playing hockey and, obviously, to get to the OHL."
Behenna's dad, Declan, is a big fan of the Rangers and took his son to a lot of the games and, but thanks to Colin, there's one team he likes even better now.
"I know in my first year he was pretty proud standing in the arena and watching me play," said the 20-year-old Colts captain, who is enjoying another impressive season with 20 goals and 43 assists in 52 games. "We were Rangers fans, but I think I converted them to Colts fans as soon as I got drafted by Barrie."
Scheifele's idols growing up on those Rangers teams included Mike Richards and Roy.
"It's been a great place to play and I hear it's been sold out for a few weeks, so I think it will be a rockin' place and I'm definitely very excited," Scheifele said.
Both Pearson and Behenna arranged to have some extra tickets for family and friends. Scheifele was surprised he didn't get as many ticket requests, but that doesn't mean he won't have a solid following in the stands.
"Actually, I only got two (tickets). Everyone else was getting them months ago," the 19-year-old said. "They were all marking it down on their calendars, 'Oh, when you coming to Kitchener? I'll have to get a ticket.'
"A lot of people I know have got tickets and are excited to go to the game."
As much as the players are looking forward to Friday's return home, they know the Colts are in a battle to lock down home-ice advantage in the opening round of the playoffs. So a win is all that matters.
"They're a good hockey club, so you can't take them lightly," Pearson said of Kitchener, which sits in third place in the Western Conference with a 36-15-1-1 record. "We haven't seen them a lot this year. They've been playing well and they've pretty much taken everybody by surprise this year, and hats off to them, but we have to go in there and play our game."
This is Behenna's fourth year going into Kitchener's arena, so he knows what to expect.
Earning a win would be the perfect sendoff for the graduating player.
"I don't know what it is about the ice, but I feel like the fans are almost right on top of you," Behenna said of the 'Aud', which boasts one of the league's best atmospheres.
"It's a real loud barn and hopefully when we get in there we can take the crowd out of it early, because if we let them get on us early, the crowd will be right into the game. And who knows what happens from there?"
Puck drops at 7:30 p.m.