Tale of two Leaf hopefuls

 

The signs of trouble were evident the moment Jesse Blacker returned from training camp with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

 
 
 
 
 

The signs of trouble were evident the moment Jesse Blacker returned from training camp with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Blacker, who wore No. 17 for the Windsor Spitfires during their run to the 2008-09 Memorial Cup championship, asked to switch to No. 70, the number he'd worn at Leafs camp.

Almost immediately, the Spitfires knew Blacker's focus wasn't where it was needed to be.

On the other hand, Kenny Ryan couldn't wait to put on a Spitfires number.

The number was irrelevant.

It's a tale of two Leafs prospects, both of them selected in the second round of last spring's National Hockey League entry draft.

One who couldn't wait to get out of Windsor.

One who couldn't wait to get here.

As Blacker, chosen 58th overall by Toronto, was walking out the door of the WFCU Centre, headed for what he believes will be open ice with the Owen Sound Attack, right-winger Ryan, taken 50th overall by the Leafs, was bolting from Boston College to join up with the Spitfires.

Just as these future Leafs found them at opposite ends of the ice when the Spitfires travelled to Owen Sound Friday to take on the Attack, they are also polar opposites in terms of the opportunity they feel is offered to them within the Windsor dressing room.

Blacker saw roadblocks. Ryan sees open highway.

"I feel with the players they have here, the coaching staff and the whole program, it's only going to make me better," Ryan said.

Blacker was certain the way he would get better would be by getting out of town. He wanted more ice time and a chance to play the point on the first power-play unit.

Demands that didn't sit well with team management.

"Jesse's a good kid," Spitfires coach and co-owner Bob Boughner said.

"He was looking for more of an opportunity. You always want your players to want more ice time - that's a good thing - but when you pronounce yourself not happy, that's an issue with us. We always put the team in front of everything.

"We're here to win a championship and if you want to win a championship, then we want you to be a Windsor Spitfire. If you're worried about something else -- ice time, points -- then this isn't a good place for you."

Blacker and Ryan aren't the first budding hockey prospects to assess that they might be better off elsewhere.

They won't be the last.

Absent an internal GPS and with such a variety of voices talking in their ears -- coaches, scouts, agents, parents -- directional disruption at some point is virtually inevitable.

"They hear so many different views and vibes, that it's hard for a player sometimes to believe in one voice being the coach," Boughner said. "But that's fine, that's my job, trying to make sure everyone's on the same page.

" It's something that we deal with on a daily basis from agents. These guys are all trying to forge a career. It's not like they're in the NHL, they've accepted their role and they're making money at it."

For players returned to junior from NHL camps, especially those making their first visit to the pros, there's a sense of urgency to get with the program outlined to them by their future employers, which often leads to head butting with their current employers.

"It's a big struggle," admitted Brian MacDonald, agent for London Knights centre Nazem Kadri, Toronto's first-round pick in the 2009 draft.

MacDonald used Windsor's Taylor Hall, expected to be the top pick in the 2010 draft, as a perfect example.

"There's so many demands put on these kids, both on and off the ice," he said.

"There's the Top Prospects game, the all-star game, the Super Series (with a Russian Select squad), and probably the world juniors as well.

"On top of that, there's the regular grind of the (Ontario Hockey League season). That's a pretty demanding slate for a young man."

As much as their status as NHL prospects makes them seem larger than life, it's easy to forget that these are teenaged boys making life-altering decisions and in some cases, like many teenagers, their choices aren't necessarily well thought out.

A rival OHL coach wondered whether patience would have rewarded Blacker with everything he desired.

"By next year, (Ryan) Ellis could be in the NHL and (Cam) Fowler might be there, too," the coach said. "(Harry) Young and (Mark) Cundari will be gone.

"Suddenly, he's the No. 1 guy on a team that's likely to host the Memorial Cup."

For Ryan, he sought the counsel of family and his representatives before determining Windsor was the best option for his future.

"It wasn't like one day, I woke up and said, 'Hey, I'm ready to come (to Windsor),'" Ryan said. "It was a long process before I settled on a decision.

"My family had a big role in it. I have two older brothers who've gone through college and I look up to them a lot. They helped me out with the decision. People in the hockey world and my advisor (Kurt Overhardt) was influential in making this decision."

Blacker, no doubt, sought and received similar input.

With so many options at the player's disposal, the NHL team which owns the rights in these situations generally remain in the background.

"We wouldn't get involved," Detroit Red Wings assistant general manager Jim Nill said. "That's a decision between the player, his family and his agent."

Kadri, who many thought played well enough to stick with the Leafs, admitted he initially struggled upon returning to junior.

"It's a little bit of an adjustment," Kadri said. "I went from the OHL and made that jump to the NHL. Coming back to the OHL, I got pretty familiar with it again pretty quickly, but obviously, it's a hard adjustment to make."

Kadri got to know Blacker when both attended Leafs camp and Kadri couldn't imagine demanding a move out of a contending team like Windsor.

"Windsor's a high-class team and obviously, a good organization," Kadri said. "He had a lot of things going for him.

"I was a little bit surprised, but he's got to do what he feels is best for him."

The same rationale that drove Blacker from Windsor drove Ryan to town.

"I just want to get better as a hockey player," Ryan said. "I think this will be a great decision for me."

It's possible that both young men will be proven correct in their respective choices.

It's a certainty that they won't be the last hockey prospects to believe the grass is greener elsewhere.

 
 
 
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