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Captain of Barrie Colts minor-midget ‘AAA’ team highlights local picks in OHL draft

By Stephen Sweet, Special to Postmedia Network

Mitch Russell, captain of the Barrie Colts minor-midget ‘AAA’ team, gets suited up for the Start Talking Cup this past winter at the Barrie Molson Centre. Russell was selected in the first round of the 2017 Ontario Hockey League Priority Selection by the Owen Sound Attack. KEVIN LAMB/FILE PHOTO

Mitch Russell, captain of the Barrie Colts minor-midget ‘AAA’ team, gets suited up for the Start Talking Cup this past winter at the Barrie Molson Centre. Russell was selected in the first round of the 2017 Ontario Hockey League Priority Selection by the Owen Sound Attack. KEVIN LAMB/FILE PHOTO

Mitch Russell knew he was going to go early.

But being taken in the first round? Russell was thrilled with the result.

The Eastview student and minor-midget ‘AAA’ Barrie Colt was the first of nine local players selected in Saturday’s Ontario Hockey League Priority Selection draft, going 20thoverall to the Owen Sound Attack.

“I’d been talking to quite a few teams and a bunch of them had me in the first round, but a lot can happen in a draft,” Russell said. “So it was a little nerve-wracking, but it ended up being all right.”

Russell was the highest-drafted player from Barrie since Zach Nastasiuk went in 2011, coincidentally also to Owen Sound with the 20th pick.

“They’re obviously a really good team this year, but I think they’ll have room for a few rookies next year, so hopefully I can fit in fine with them,” Russell said.

After getting in some minor-midget action last year as a call-up, Russell put up nearly a goal per game this season for the Colts.

“Owen Sound is getting a player with a very good skill level,” said Norm McCauley, head coach of Russell’s minor-midget Colts. “Mitch is a pro skater, and he’s proven that at the combine with his scores.

“He’s got a great shot when he gets it on net and overall, he’s a high skill-level guy,” McCauley added. “They’ve got a guy that they can fit into their system and you could see a situation with Aidan Dudas at centre and Mitch Russell on the wing, and even as a 17-year-old and a 16-year-old, that would be pretty formidable.”

Russell had played for McCauley at last year’s OHL Cup, and that gave the forward a head start on getting ready for this past season and beyond.

“I think that really helped out, just to get it under my belt and seeing that I had to work hard for everything,” Russell said. “I think that’s going to prepare me, since it’s going to be a little bigger and faster in the OHL, so I need to keep working hard this summer so I can get to that level and play good.”

While Russell found out where he was going within the first hour, Isaak Phillips had to wait until a little after noon before being phoned about his future.

“I was looking at the computer and then I got a call from the Sudbury Wolves, and they gave me the good news,” Phillips said.

Sudbury took the defenceman in the fourth round, and once Phillips let his parents, Curt and Joan, know about it, they were extremely happy.

“My mom, dad and I were watching it together,” Phillips said. “My mom, she was very excited. She’s helped me the whole way, since I was six, and she’s very happy for me.”

Phillips, whose older sister, Danika, is playing hockey for the Dalhousie Tigers in the Atlantic University Sport conference, was determined to make himself a high-calibre prospect.

“I’ve been working out every day with a personal trainer that specializes in hockey, and being on the ice two, three times a week, which will ramp up soon,” Phillips said. “I also work with (former Colt) Daniel Tkaczuk in the summertime.”

McCauley has seen Phillips’s growth first-hand.

“We had a couple of kids who improved immensely and Isaak is one of them,” McCauley said. “Issak has learned how to play in the tough games and his skating level has improved, as well as his ability to move the puck.

“I really think he’s going to play in the (OHL) next season,” McCauley added. “He may not play much as a 16-year-old defenceman, but I think he’s developed enough that he can play.”

The final five rounds of the draft saw a glut of local players get drafted.

Phelpston’s Jacob Partridge, listed at just over five-foot-seven and 162 pounds, went in the 11th round to Peterborough, and should be a powerful, intelligent find for the Petes.

“I wouldn’t categorize him as small,” McCauley said. “He’s very fit, broad-shouldered and has an excellent skating ability.

“He’s a terrific kid and teammate,” he added. “I had conversations with Mike Oke, the Peterborough GM, and said that you’re not going to get a better kid.”

Jeffrey Johnson and Payton Schaly went in consecutive rounds to the Colts, and despite being 13th- and 14th-round picks, there is a future for the minor-midget players close to home.

“For sure there is,” McCauley said. “Payton is one of our most improved players, and he’s learning how to play the game properly. He trains very well and knows how to play. He’s got the skill level, so he’s going to be valuable down the road to any team.

“Meanwhile, Jeffrey is getting a wonderful opportunity,” added McCauley of his blue-liner. “Jeffrey played steady defence for us all year and Barrie needs defencemen, so it’s not a huge surprise to see them take one.”

The last minor-midget Colt taken was Curtis Kuzmyk, a 14th-round pick of the North Bay Battalion.

“He can own the ice when he wants to,” said McCauley of the big forward, who has outgrown his six-foot-one, 209-pound listing. “When Curtis figures out the game, he could dominate. For a big man to have soft hands, that’s valuable, and I’m sure that’s what North Bay was looking at.”

Other local notables that were selected include Oro-Medonte’s Joe Howe, a goalie drafted by the Colts in the 10th round, Stayner’s Will Redick, the lone North Central Predator to go on Saturday in the 12th round to Sarnia, and Barrie native Cameron Fulop, drafted in Round 14 by the London Knights.

The opportunity still remains for local products to get either signed at a later date, or taken in one year’s time, something McCauley firmly believes will happen for Bailey Kirwin.

“I’m very surprised that no one decided to step up on Bailey, but the draft isn’t always fair,” McCauley said. “Bailey will probably, in my opinion, play major midget here and just rip up the league, and then everyone will be, ‘holy crap, we’d better get on this kid’ next year.”

Drafted or not, all of the players that are hoping to get to the next level will need to continue to impress.

“We always promote to our guys not to let this one day define you, one way or the other,” McCauley said. “It’s what you do when you get to training camp, in the off-season, and what you do to make yourself better.”

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