Named the new head coach for the Barrie Colts in 2004, Marty Williamson could hardly believe his luck.
The first-year bench boss had a budding superstar in Bryan Little on his roster and B.J. Crombeen as his first captain.
Little was coming off a season where he posted 34 goals and 24 assists for 58 points in 64 games and was named the OHL’s Rookie of the Year.
“What a fabulous player he was,” Williamson recalled of the current Winnipeg Jets star, who will have his No. 18 Colts jersey retired in a special ceremony by the club before Saturday night’s contest against the Hamilton Bulldogs. “He was the first guy at practice that I kind of went, ‘Wow!’ I’d seen him standing in line and he’s not an imposing guy and then I would just watch him do the drills and everything was at full speed. He wanted to score on every drill.
“For me, it was a dream to get to the OHL and then to be able to have players like that? (Crombeen) was a great captain for a rookie coach like myself, so I was just very blessed and very lucky to get the opportunity. And then spend three years with Bryan, like I did, you’re just so proud of what he’s been able to go on and do.”
For the next three years, Williamson would have a front seat as the dynamic centre would go on to become Barrie’s all-time leading scorer. Little would finish with 153 goals and 342 points over just 247 OHL games.
He would be drafted 12th overall by the Atlanta Thrashers in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft and go on to win a gold medal with Canada at the 2007 World Junior Hockey Championships.
“For me it was really the practices. I’d never seen a player practice like that before,” said Williamson, now head coach of the men’s hockey team at Brock University and a senior advisor to the director of hockey operations with the Colts. “Coming out of Tier II Jr. A, I had never seen that. I just remember him and (Hunter) Tremblay kind of joined at the hip and how much fun it was calling their names out so consistently.”
Now in his 13th NHL season, Little is returning to his old junior hockey stomping grounds on Saturday to see his jersey retired. An honour he is grateful for.
“It means a lot to me to be recognized by Barrie, that’s where my hockey career really started and I developed into the player I am today,” said the 32-year-old, who has recorded 217 goals and 304 assists for 521 points over 843 NHL games with the Thrashers and Jets. “I owe a lot to that organization for the opportunity they gave me and to be honoured by them is truly special.”
Little has been out of the Jets lineup since early November after suffering a perforated eardrum when a rising slapshot hit him in the side of the head. He has been skating, though the team has provided no timeline on his return.
A third-round pick (50th overall) by the Colts in 2003, Little says he’ll always fondly remember the time he spent in Barrie.
“I’ll not just remember the memories I made on the ice, but the people I met and the lifelong friends I made when I was there,” he said. “The biggest thing I remember is how the players and I were treated. They pushed us hard but they made us feel at home, which isn’t easy for young kids moving away from home.
“It was like a family there and it was hard to say goodbye when my time was done there.”
That Little’s jersey is the first to be retired in the Colts’ 25 seasons is no surprise to Williamson. For him, they couldn’t have picked a better player than Little to honour first.
“He would be the perfect poster boy for what you want when you’re drafting a player,” he said. “What you want as a teammate and what you want as a player who played for only your franchise and then went on to have a great and continued career in the NHL.
“I wasn’t there for the players before and that, but for me it’s an absolute No. 1 guy that I would have as my guy. (President and owner) Howie Campbell’s done a great job of doing this. He’s the guy you’d want to be the first guy.”
Williamson saw a fire and determination in Little that sets him apart from so many others. While not a towering player on the ice, the then five-foot-10, 195-pound forward would go anywhere on the ice to make the play.
He was as consistent as any player Williamson has ever coached.
“There was no ups and downs with Bryan,” said Williamson, who still regrets not being able to attend Little’s wedding because of a previous commitment. “It was like every game he was there and you don’t do that without that fire inside you unless you’re that competitive. He had a wonderful shot and release, but he worked for everything.
“It’s why he’s been successful, but to me it was the consistency that he brought. That’s why it’s kind of hard for me to pick out one game, because I thought he was great every game. He was always there for you and always there for his teammates, and what a great leader and a great example he was.”
There was no better choice as Little for captain after Crombeen went pro. Never a vocal leader, he would speak up when needed. The bigger the game, the bigger he seemed to play. He killed penalties and was a force on the power play. Whether it was trying to rally or protect a lead, Little was often there leading the team.
One of the best things, Williamson thought, was how he never really showed frustration.
“He was extremely competitive, but after always a smile on his face, very upbeat,” the coach explained. “I was amazed to watch him go up after games and talk to his mom and dad, and sister and girlfriend and it never really seemed they were talking about the game. They were just asking how things were, laughing, joking and very relaxed, comfortable.
“Whether it was a win or a loss, it didn’t seem to change him. That’s the kind of demeanour he brought. He played hard and if we lost you didn’t see him busting sticks and doing anything like that. He was a very classy kid. A great family.”
While he won’t be able to attend the ceremony because of a game with Brock, Williamson is excited to see Little get his special night in Barrie. He was the first superstar player he got to coach and that, he says, will always mean so much to him.
Williamson says every time he steps in Sadlon Arena now, he’ll always look up to see Little’s banner and get that special feeling that he played a small part in that.
“I couldn’t be prouder,” he said. “It means a lot to me, it really does. It will put a smile on my face every time I look up there.”
Game time Saturday is 7:30 p.m.
banner image via Barrie Colts