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Former Barrie Colt to play in Stanley Cup final

By Gene Pereira, Special to Postmedia Network

Los Angeles Kings forward Tanner Pearson and goaltender Jonathan Quick celebrate after a 5-2 victory against the Chicago Blackhawks in Game 4 of the Western Conference Final. Pearson and Kyle Clifford, both former Barrie Colts, are off to the Stanley Cup final after defeating the Blackhawks in seven games. JEFF GROSS/GETTY IMAGES/AFP

Los Angeles Kings forward Tanner Pearson and goaltender Jonathan Quick celebrate after a 5-2 victory against the Chicago Blackhawks in Game 4 of the Western Conference Final. Pearson and Kyle Clifford, both former Barrie Colts, are off to the Stanley Cup final after defeating the Blackhawks in seven games. JEFF GROSS/GETTY IMAGES/AFP

Every offseason, a collection of players and prospects from various Ontario Hockey League teams take to the ice once a week in Brampton and play in the Carnevale Summer Hockey League.

The recreational league, owned and operated by former Colts assistant coach Frank Carnevale, helps players stay in shape and allows OHL teams to get a further look at players in their respective organizations.  

It was a couple of months before the 2011-12 OHL season and Ken Hornick, a team scout who ran things behind the bench for the Colts summer squad, passed along an invitation to see some of club’s young prospects in action.

What Hornick really wanted this scribe to see was just how big a step winger Tanner Pearson had taken in his game.

After a couple of periods and a dominant performance, it was pretty clear Pearson had taken his game to a whole new level.

Sitting next to his father, Tim, in the stands that night, he told me how the winger had worked so hard that summer and was determined to make an impact with the club in his second season. 

Passed over twice in the National Hockey League draft, Pearson would go on to have a breakout year for the Colts, leading the club in scoring with 37 goals and 91 points — third overall in the OHL — and suiting up with Team Canada at the world junior championship.

The Los Angeles Kings would make the Kitchener native their first round pick (30th overall) in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft.

That was just three years ago.

Now, as Pearson gets set to take to the ice with the Kings on Wednesday night in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals against the New York Rangers, even Colts head coach Dale Hawerchuk is thrilled to see just how far his former player has come in such a short time.

“It’s actually exciting to watch him play,” Hawerchuk said. “I remember his first year with us, when he was 18, you could really see signs of it really starting to come. By the time he was 19, I remember watching him in the Carnevale league and going ‘Oh man, this guy’s just dominating’.

“He just carried that on throughout the season and got himself on the world juniors, got himself drafted in the first round," he added. “I didn’t see him much playing in the minors (last season with the AHL’s Manchester Monarchs), but watching him in L.A., he’s looking like he’s got those quick bursts, he’s hard on pucks and has a quick shot.

"He’s starting to become a real effective guy for the Kings.”

Not bad for a player who was a 14th-round pick in the OHL Priority Selection in 2012. There were 266 players selected before Pearson, yet here he is playing a main role on a team that is the heavy favourite in this year’s Stanley Cup final.

Pearson was determined to make the most of any opportunity he got.

“Even being drafted as late as he was in the OHL draft, he’s a great example of if you want it bad enough and you work at it, you have a chance. Especially when you’ve been identified as a good minor midget or whatever,” Hawerchuk said.

“That’s always the hard part for scouting, is what’s the next step for these kids? Are they going to take the next step? Do they have dedication or not? Obviously (Tanner) did.”

Pearson would spend all of last season in the AHL, but the Kings would reward him for a solid year when they dressed him for a playoff game.

After suiting up in Manchester for 41 games this season, the Kings, looking for ways to improve their offence, called up Pearson. He would finish with three goals and seven points in 25 games.

But like he did in that offseason with the Colts, Pearson has taken his game to a whole new level in this year’s NHL playoffs, recording four goals and 12 points in 19 playoff games.

He is playing a key role, skating on the team’s top line with veteran Jeff Carter and former Ottawa 67’s star and fellow rookie Tyler Toffoli.

Affectionately known as That '70s Line (all three players sports jersey numbers in the 70s), they are the main reason the Kings were able to knock off the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks in a thrilling seven-game Western Conference championship series.

“That last Kings team that won a Cup (in 2012) was a pretty good darn team, but they’ve added a Pearson and a Toffoli now that kind of bring another element of speed and skill and scoring prowess that maybe they didn’t quite have before,” Hawerchuk said. “They’ve almost become a more dangerous team that way.

“Those guys seem to energize the older group on the team and sometimes that’s a key thing for any championship team," he added. "When they’re really effective on the ice, it really stokes the older guys on the team.”

Pearson had all the motivation he needed heading into that summer of 2011.

That June, he watched good friend, fellow Kitchener native and teammate Mark Scheifele realize his dreams when the Winnipeg Jets selected him seventh overall in the NHL Entry Draft.

Pearson said he also got a call from Hawerchuk, telling him not only could he be a top-six forward in the OHL, but that he could actually lead the league in scoring.

Pearson was determined to do all he could. Despite being passed over twice already in the draft, he went to work.

Alongside Scheifele, the pair worked out under the same trainer and fitness program in Kitchener.

He got into the best shape of his life.

“He was focused and full of confidence,” Hawerchuk recalled of Pearson in training camp that year. “I think he gained confidence from the first year. He had more of a third-line role (in his rookie year). I think at times he was disappointed. He always wanted more.

“But he worked hard. Really hard. His last season work out program went to a whole other level and I think he started seeing results from that. I think he got real excited over that.”

To see Pearson and Kings teammate Kyle Clifford, another former Barrie Colt, enjoying success in the NHL playoffs is fun admits Hawerchuk.

“For sure, even watching Scheifele playing with Canada at the world championships,” said the Hockey Hall of Famer, who hopes his current lineup of Colts are watching and seeing just what could be. “Those are good examples to all our young draft picks coming in. It’s there and you’re that close to it. 

“It was only a few years ago that these guys were in the same shoes as our young draft picks, and look where they are now.”

It wasn’t only yesterday really that Pearson was just a teenager suiting up in a summer league and starting a journey that would take him to Hollywood and, beginning tonight, play for Hockey’s Holy Grail.

What a great story.

It’s no wonder most people in this city will be cheering on Pearson and the Kings in the Stanley Cup.

“You can’t help but pull for a kid like Tanner Pearson,” Hawerchuk said. “I didn’t coach Clifford other than one training camp, but obviously there’s a Barrie Colts connection to the Kings.

“I think a lot of people in Barrie will be pulling for the Kings.”

ICE CHIPS: The Kings won’t be the only team in the Stanley Cup with a Barrie Colt on the roster. Former Colt Daniel Girardi is a defenceman and alternate captain with the opposing New York Rangers. The Welland native spent parts of three seasons in Barrie, starting in 2000-01, before being dealt to the Guelph Storm in a deal the Storm went on to win hands down. 

Gene Pereira covers the Barrie Colts for the Barrie Examiner.

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