Sometimes, it's hard to forget that these are just kids.
Reading the YouTube comments on Saturday during the OHL draft, you'd think these are experienced veterans we're dealing with – players that have paid their dues and battled the grind for years. Personal attacks, spirited chirps among fan bases, you know it. But they're just teenagers, still taking high school one day at a time – as well as they can at this time, at least. Spending time with friends is still a high priority and, above all, just having fun as a youth.
And you could hear that in Ty Nelson's voice after he went No. 1 overall to the North Bay Battalion this past weekend – he was so genuinely excited to be the first among his peers. As per league tradition, the Battalion announced a day prior to the draft that the club would select Nelson with the first pick. Nelson said he found out on Wednesday, but had to keep it quiet for a few days – something that's not easy for a young kid, but at least it took the anxiety away.
"It was breathtaking," Nelson said. "When I got the call, I had no words. I was speechless. My dad and mom started crying. My sister jumped around in joy."
Nelson, a 15-year-old defenseman from the Toronto Jr. Canadiens, has been touted as a special player for much of his teenage life, going up against some of his generation's top talents such as Shane Wright and Adam Fantilli. When the OHL eventually resumes, and, hopefully, that's on time for 2020-21 in September, Nelson will be one of the most watched players in the league as he showcases why he's the definition of a skilled, modern-day defenseman. Nelson models his game after Ryan Ellis and Morgan Rielly. Some scouts have likened his game to Jared Spurgeon and Brian Campbell. Either way, he's in good company.
"There isn't a player more ready for the OHL than Nelson," said an Ontario-based minor midget scout. "He reeks confidence. The way he moves the puck, the way he challenges bigger, stronger players, the way he doesn't take any challenge lightly. There's so much to love about his game."
In the past, the top draft prospects have met up in person for photo shoots and other activities shortly after the draft. Nelson's teammate, Pano Fimis, went second overall to Niagara, but with an isolation order in effect, they were stuck to their respective homes on draft day – one of the biggest days of their lives. Still, Nelson has remained positive throughout the quarantine and has kept active as best as he can. He's still taking part in school online and stickhandles and does some dryland training by himself to remain fit, which is vital while entering the complete unknown of what the summer off-season has to offer.
Hitting the ice at full stride will be important in living up to the high expectations placed on him as a No. 1 selection, especially after explosive campaigns from Jamie Drysdale and Brandt Clarke the past two years. But like the two top defensemen before him, Nelson has the makings of a future star. In 32 GTHL games, Nelson's 32 points gave him an 11-point cushion over Matthew Morden for the lead among defenders. Overall, Nelson had 65 points in 61 games, by far surpassing the output of any other Ontario-based defenders – and he did it without Fantilli, considered the top Canadian forward prospect, to pass to for most of the season.
Nelson played against older competition prior to his draft season, taking key minutes for the Jr. Canadiens against a stacked 2003-born draft class that included Wright, Clarke, Brennan Othmann and Francesco Pinelli, among others. Nelson said that experience playing against older, stronger competition will help in his transition to the OHL, where the 5-foot-8 defender will certainly be outmatched physically. But as scouts have pointed out, his elusiveness with the puck and high top speed will make up for any physical shortcomings, and if he hits a late growth spurt, he'll be even more dangerous.
In his free time, Nelson likes to watch hockey highlights online and research stats and other aspects of the game. And that's something scouts appreciate – he's a hockey junkie, of sorts. You tend to see that out of young stars these days: players such as Jack Hughes and Connor McDavid have a vast hockey knowledge that even makes hockey historians turn their heads. Nelson is always learning, both on and off the ice, and his determination to get better is unmatched by most kids his own age.
Nelson truly loves the game. Next, it's time for him to show why you should love his game.
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