Eric Cornel believes he bore the weight of the world during his rookie season in the OHL — and it showed.
Coming into this season, the 17-year-old forward was something of an afterthought on many NHL draft rankings after a quiet yearling campaign with the Peterborough Petes. Various circumstances — the 6-foot-2 speedster needing time to fill out his frame and the Petes being forced to play catch-up under coach Jody Hull in the second half — limited Cornel's role. However, the Kemptville, Ont., native is now affirming why he was a first-rounder in the 2012 OHL priority selection, with five goals and 10 points in his first 11 games.
"I had a lot of pressure on myself and there were high expectations in general," says Cornel, a right-shooting centre who can also man the wing. "This year, it's a sort of step back to say I'm going to contribute to the team as much as I can. That was just something that I came to understand throughout the year. I guess the ice time might not have been as high as I expected. I learned I got to fit into the role the coaches want.
"I came in a little bigger and with that came more confidence," adds Cornel, listed at 6-2, 186. "I also think I'm getting more used to playing in the OHL."
The Petes have a prized draft prospect in left wing Nick Ritchie, while 18-year-old forward Greg Betzold is a potential re-entry pick. Cornel could make it three, especially with his willingness to work on his two-way game.
"The one thing with Eric is he is a student," Petes general manager Mike Oke says. "He's intelligent. He's committed at school. Academically, he's strong. When he comes to the rink, he's not afraid to ask questions and look at some video because he wants to get better. That's a good sign. He's experiencing some of these situations at the OHL level for the first time and the OHL level. And he's handling it well and we expect he will become an even bigger piece of the Peterborough Petes' puzzle."
Oftentimes, the summer between a player's 16- and 17-year-old seasons is critical for building strength and, commensurately, confidence. Suffice to say, the Petes weren't worried if the numbers weren't there last season for Cornel, who had four goals and 16 points in 63 games.
It's difficult sometimes for the younger players who are not as physically developed to come in," Oke says. "Especially after they've been very successful at the minor hockey level. Eric made some adjustments to his workout program and he's really become a lot stronger. That gives you more confidence when you know you're going to win some of those puck battles or it's going to be more difficult for defenders to knock the puck off your stick. He's about a point a game and he's being utilized in key situations."
Cornel already has more goals than he managed all of last season. He's also helped the Petes open with six wins in their first 11 games as they push to join the playoff pack in the OHL's Eastern Conference.
"Jody Hull's done a good job of making us aware that we have to compete," he says.
1. What is one specific element of the game where you would like to show improvement by season's end?
"There's definitely a physical aspect of my game that I need to improve, and just overall defensively. If I can be reliable in in the last minutes of games, in the last minutes of period, will go a long way toward furthering my development."
2. When you went to the 2012 Youth Olympics in Austria, how important was that for developing your psyche as an athlete?
"That was big. It was great opportunity. Being 15 years old, it was really eye-opening and seeing the meaning of sport, not just hockey. How big the world of sport is. There were a lot of cultural aspects to that event. There's flags from all over the world, athletes from all over the place, from countries you might not know where to find on a map. It makes life in Canada seem kind of small."
3. Part of being an elite athlete is sacrifices in your diet, but what's a favourite cheat food?
"Got to say burgers. I go out for a meal and if I can get away with eating a burger, I'll have one."
4. Outside of your parents, who is someone who comes to mind when you, "if not for that person, I might not be here?"
"Coaches that I had throughout minor hockey with the Upper Canada Cyclones and before that with the Rideau-St. Lawrence Kings. One I think of is Steve Merkley, he coached us 3-4 years. He knew the game, he was a great player when he played for the [Junior B] Westport Rideaus."
5. The Olympics are fewer than four months away; any fantasy of what event you would go in if not for hockey?
"Probably bobsledding, something crazy like that. Those guys so at high speeds down an icy track. You can't get much more crazier than that. It's also a team sport at the same time."
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet. Please address any questions, comments or concerns to firstname.lastname@example.org.