SHAWINIGAN, Que. — Since they're 17 years old, you can liken the roles prized rookies Max Domi and Bo Horvat have with the London Knights to when a teenager gets his first set of wheels.
Domi fully rates being on a scoring line with NHL draft picks Jared Knight and Greg McKegg. The latest proof was his assist in Tuesday's 4-1 win over the Edmonton Oil Kings, the way he fought off a check from 201-pound Klarc Wilson before speeding into the slot and wiring a shot that created a fat rebound that McKegg deposited for the swing goal. Yet it's like Domi was given the keys to the car by being put on a scoring line. With Horvat it's like he was told he'd get to inherit a relative's old beater if he picked up some lawn-cutting jobs to help pay for the emissions test and the gas.
The Knights' depth means the No. 9 overall pick in last spring's Ontario Hockey League priority selection draft has been spotted throughout the playoffs. Yet Horvat living up to the promise he showed when he lit it up in minor hockey with the Elgin-Middlesex Chiefs. With Josh Anderson out Tuesday with a flu bug, the farm kid from Rodney, Ont., got back in the lineup after being scratched in London's Sunday loss to Shawinigan. Naturally, Horvat scored the winning goal when he hammered in an Andreas Athanasiou rebound in the first period.
"Max is a great player and he deserves everything he gets, he's been playing really well for us lately," Horvat said after the Knights assured themselves of at least a semifinal berth and at least two days' rest before playing an elimination game. "I just have to keep working hard and my time will come. I know I have to earn my ice time."
'Makes the most of it'
A harbinger of Horvat's future is that he captained Team Ontario at the world under-17 challenge during the Christmas holidays. As one of the young followers on the Knights rather than a primary or secondary leader, he's shown he's always thinking of teammates. Prior to Game 4 of the OHL final, the Knights made a late choice to scratch him and dress Athanasiou, the speedy playmaker. After London won to go up 3-1 in the series thanks in big part to a goal that was facilitated by Athanasiou's burst into the Niagara IceDogs' zone, Horvat made a point to congratulate the teammate who'd bumped him out.
"From Day 1, Bo's been a great guy, easy to get along with," Athanasiou said. "You know if he comes out of the lineup, he's going to be a bit frustrated, but he'll come right up to you and say, 'go get 'em.'
"That's the way she goes sometimes," Athanasiou said of the difference between how Domi and Horvat are deployed despite having similar potential. "Both those guys are playing well. Both of those guys had great outings at the under-17. Bo was captain. Being a fourth-liner, he gets limited ice, but he makes the most of it."
Suffice to say, you didn't need to be seated in the same section as Nathan MacKinnon if you wanted to see a player born in 1995 with a bright future in this tournament.
Horvat, Domi and fellow 2013 NHL draft prospect Curtis Lazar of the Edmonton Oil Kings have each made a good impression in Shawinigan. Domi and Horvat, who were chosen with consecutive picks last spring (Domi was taken by the Kingston Frontenacs, who traded his rights to London), now each have a goal. Lazar, Henrik Samuelsson and Stephane Legault seem to be the only Oil Kings line which is doing anything.
Horvat is confident that having to scratch tooth and nail for every scrap of ice time — a contrast from being the lead dog on all of his minor hockey teams — is paying off. He comes by the check-your-ego attitude honestly. Horvat was well-schooled by his father, Tim Horvat, and uncle Ron Horvat, coach and owner of the Junior B St. Thomas (Ont.) Stars. Between the end of his minor-midget year and the 2011 OHL draft, Bo joined his uncle's team and helped it win a league championship. He was 15 and looked 18 or 19 at that level.
"They [his dad and uncle] both helped me a lot about being at a higher level with bigger, stronger guys. Fortunately, we ended up winning a championship. It was a great experience, playing Game 7s. My dad and uncle used to play for the Stars, so there's a lot of family history there. The atmosphere there is unbelievable."
At 6-foot and 198 pounds, size is not an issue for Horvat. The fact Knights coach-GM Mark Hunter has labelled him "Ox" tells you Horvat will have a NHL body someday.
"Mark gave me the nickname at the beginning of the year," Horvat said. "Apparently he calls me 'strong as an ox.' It's stuck with me throughout the year. All the boys call me that."
In other words, Bo Horvat has a two-letter first name, a two-letter nickname and might wear a letter for the Knights in about two years. The determining factor for the 6-foot, 198-pounder, like it always is for big forwards with soft hands, will be his acceleration. In other words, the set of wheels that really matter to a teen hockey player.
"I always want to work on my first three strides and getting quicker," he says.
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.