November 24, 2011
Perhaps Tanner Pearson is not such an unlikely leading scorer in the Ontario Hockey League.
One take on the Barrie Colts left wing's upward arc is that it's just a reminder success for a young player doesn't move in a straight line. Some take longer to decide to go all in on pursuing a hockey career. Something clicked last off-season after Pearson, who had a decent first season, saw his teammate and Kitchener, Ont., buddy Mark Scheifele go seventh overall in the NHL draft. Instead of treating his summer like, well, summer, Pearson hitched his star to a (future Winnipeg) Jet and went to work.
"I had some struggles personal-wise and we had some struggles team-wise last year, so I wanted to be in the best shape I could be coming into this year's camp," says Pearson, who has 18 goals and 51 points in 22 games coming into his team's game tonight at Sarnia. "I thought I was up there, came into camp in good shape and was able to impress the coaches and get on the first line.
"I've been with him [Scheifele] all last summer," Pearson adds when asked of his connection with Scheifele, who opened the regular season with the Jets. "We work out together, him getting drafted seventh overall, he shows the poise and pride you need to play at that level."
An injury in his minor midget season led to Pearson falling to the next-to-last round of the OHL priority selection draft in 2008. A season later, he was caught in a numbers game when Barrie had a stacked team in — future NHL top-5 pick Ryan Strome was a fringe player as a 16-year-old rookie on that team. Last season, Pearson produced decent numbers (15 goals, 42 points) by rookie standards, but wasn't content with that.
"Sometimes I say to players, 'you have to be true to yourself — do you really have the desire to want to do it?' " Colts coach Dale Hawerchuk says of Pearson. "A lot of people will talk it, but then when it comes time to do it, they make excuses. He had a summer where he made no excuses and he made up his mind and it's paying dividends now.
"Being a close friend of [Colts star] Mark Scheifele and seeing what's happening with Mark, he probably thought, 'hey, I'm not that far away,' " adds Hawerchuk, the Hockey Hall of Famer who's in his second year with Barrie. "Those two are pretty close and [overage right wing Colin] Behenna is from the same area and they're all skilled players, for sure."
Scouts will have to gauge how much upside Pearson has compared to other draft prospects who are a year or two younger. His progress might be similar to Jason Akeson, who shared the OHL scoring title as a 20-year-old overage last season and now has 14 points in 16 games as a rookie in the AHL for the Philadelphia Flyers farm team.
"If you start thinking of what scouts thinks of you, you'll start playing badly," says the 6-foot, 192-pound Pearson, whom NHL Central Scouting put him 22nd on its OHL watch list last week. "It's nice to be on that list, show that the work you're doing is paying off. But to be on that list isn't a personal thing, a lot of the credit goes to my linemates, Colin Behenna, Zach Hall and Mark Scheifele for a bit as well."
Pearson's draft stock will rise if the Colts (11-8-2-1, sixth in the OHL's Eastern Conference) can push higher in the standings.
"Like I tell the kids, if you're a good player on a team, that's great, but if you want to be a great player, you have to make the team win," Hawerchuk says.
"Going into my OHL draft year, I broke my wrist right before playoffs so I didn't really get a good look there. My first year, during the under-17s, I think, is when I first got noticed and Barrie picked me up in a late, late round. My first year, I wasn't really big enough to do anything. Second year, Barrie had that really, really good [OHL finalist] team. Last year, it wasn't really a great team, it was kind of a losing skid of a team. This year we've kind of turned things around."
2. When you were working with the Kitchener Rangers as a young teenager — we know you get asked about it all the time — what were the lasting lessons you took from that experience?
"I could say I learned the OHL before I was even in the OHL, learning from [then-Rangers] like Steve Mason, Matt Halischuk, Nick Spaling, who are all in the NHL today. Just learning how they carry themselves and how they present themselves in public.
"I just did game day stuff, going at 3 o'clock and just doing stuff [Rangers equipment manager] Dan Lebold wanted me to do. I would be there till about 10:30 until the game ended and then I'd buzz off.
3. Was there a wow factor when you learned Dale Hawerchuk, Hockey Hall of Famer, was taking over the Colts?
"As soon as he got named coach, I didn't really know who he was, but I found out hearing from my dad and his buddies saying how great of a player he was in his day. Playing with him in Barrie, you realize why he's in the Hall of Fame. He was a great player, he is a great player, he could probably still play in the NHL [at age 48]. So to get him behind the bench really helps us out a lot."
4. If there was no hockey, what sport would you play?
"Probably golf. I'm a big golfer in the summer, go out with some buddies, hit the links."
5. Aside from your two home rinks, Barrie and Kitchener, where is favourite place to play in the OHL?
"I got to chance to play here [Ottawa Civic Centre] as the home team for the Super Series. That was a great experience. It's a great place to play as the home team, but it's also a great place to play as the visiting team. Maybe London [John Labatt Centre] as well. They sell out every night. It's a big barn."
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet (photo: OHL Images).