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Saginaw Spirit’s Mitchell Stephens bulks up for rookie year: Making The Jump

Neate Sager
Buzzing The Net

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Stephens, of Peterborough, Ont., was selected No. 8 overall by Saginaw in April (Aaron Bell, OHL Images)

Mitchell Stephens has never need to be introduced to his goaltender, unlike some young players who have to indulge their scoring sweet tooth.

The Saginaw Spirit's first-rounder believes he will come to the Ontario Hockey League with a greater understanding of playing a two-way game then the typical rookie. The 16-year-old has closely studied NHLers such as Mike Richards and Mike Fisher, the latter of whom hails from Stephens' hometown of Peterborough, Ont. Probably not by coincidence, Stephens got to skate recently with Fisher while ramping up for Saginaw's cap, along with other notable pros such as Brian Bickell and Kurtis Foster.

"It was good for me to find that little inspiration, to train with him and see where he's come from," Stephens, whom Saginaw took No. 8 overall in April, said of Fisher. "I grew up in the same town and it's good to see that.

"Ever since I started playing I've taken my defence seriously, I feel I have some good offensive talent too. Just where I've come from. In minor hockey in Peterborough, since we had fewer people [to draw from] we weren't the skilled team, so we relied more on the defensive aspect. It's just the role I've always gone toward."

The 5-foot-11, 170-pound Stephens is one of the fleetest players among the OHL's rookie class. He notes that he will need to fine-tune his hands and puck skills in order to be a productive scorer.

While he is joining a U.S.-based team, Stephens already has plenty of experience of living apart from his parents, Heather and Lee. While playing for the Toronto Marlboros AAA program, Stephens also spent a couple school years attending the PEAC School for promising elite athletes.

"Living away from home matured me a lot. I realized if I wanted to make something out of hockey I'd have to mature a lot. Coming into the rink, I wasn't so much focused on 'Mom, can you get me this? Dad, can you get me this?' but on doing it myself."

Stephens, who reunited with his family last winter in Peterborough and helped St. Peter's Secondary win the Ontario boys high school title, also knows what he'll be up against as a midsized player among some of the behemoths who roam the OHL. He notes his trainer, Spike McCormick, has been big on using manufacturing fear as a motivator this summer.

"You'll want to quit and he's telling you not to," Stephens says. "He's always saying, 'you're going to be a rookie next year,' bringing me down so I'll put the work in to get bigger."

1. When you break the game down into small parts, where do you feel you have a lot of room for improvement?

"Just my strength. Playing against 20-year-olds when you're coming into the league as 16-year-old, you have to realize that age difference and build your strength up, of course. That's a major thing that I've focused on this summer, just to be able to compete with them.

"My hands and my shot, as well. Just everything needs to improve."

2. There is a learning curve for a rookie, but where have you set the bar in terms of your expectations this season?

"I just want to come in and compete and contribute to the team as much as possible. We have a big veteran team, they made a lot of trades for veterans. I don't think that will phase me too much. I think I will be able to contribute. I feel the way I play benefits the overall team."

3. Outside of your parents, who is someone you consider really influential in your success so far?

"My uncle, Scott Stephens. He used to play in the East Coast Hockey League and in Europe. Mostly likely my dad, he knows what it takes. My dad used to play high-end, elite-level soccer [at Saint Mary's University in Halifax, N.S.]. They've helped me along the way with a lot of aspects, training."

4. What is your go-to activity when you need a mental break from hockey?

"In the summer, I golf. Just get away from the rink and have some quality time with some friends because I won't be able to see them during the year. Between that and training and doing "

5. Athletes must be strict about nutrition. So tell us, what was the last cheat food you had?

"Cheat food? Probably had a full pizza the other day. Just a full, greasy pizza the other day. It was bad."

Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet. Please address any questions, comments or concerns to btnblog@yahoo.ca.

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