For Barrie Colts ‘AAA’ minor midget teammates Noah Cochrane and Cameron Mercer, there was plenty to be excited about coming into the 2020-21 hockey season.
With this being their draft year and both likely to hear their names called in the early rounds of the 2021 OHL Priority Selection, the young prospects were anxious to make their mark and strut their game in front of numerous OHL scouts.
Unfortunately the COVID-19 pandemic changed everything, cancelling games, tournaments and throwing a wrench in what was expected to be a big year for the talented duo and their minor midget teammates.
Now comes the news the under-16 rep squad, along with the Barrie midget (U-18) team they faced in scrimmages, will have to put their games on hold after a total of eight players tested positive for the virus last week and 18 are in self-isolation.
That means no practices or scrimmaging for the minor midget Colts in front of a small group of invited scouts. Yet another tough obstacle to deal with during these trying times for Mercer who already felt the pressure that comes with an OHL draft year.
“It’s unfortunate that COVID is the way it is right now,” the 15-year-old centre said before news of last week’s positive tests. “We can’t have a regular season and the big tournaments, stuff like that. I just try my best to not kind of focus on the pressure and not focus on who is there watching me. I try to go out every game and practice and just do my best and be the best that I can be.
“Be the best player, be the best teammate I can be. It’s the kind of pressure that I like to have, but I don’t try to focus on it too much. I try to put it in the back of my head and just go out and play.”
For Cochrane, he’s focusing on other areas he can during the pandemic. Like off-ice work.
“I’m just kind of using the COVID thing as an advantage and getting more off-ice training,” the 15-year-old defenceman said. “Just be in the gym more.”
Cochrane and Mercer were expected to lead a Barrie club that was set to be one of the top minor midget teams in the province this season. Head coach Bill Maguire, who guides the team behind the bench with former NHL defenceman Greg Hotham, hopes they still get a chance to show that this season.
“Who knows, maybe it’s a 20-game regular season starting at end of January and then they have some kind of OHL Cup. I don’t know,” Maguire said before the positive tests. “Just anything, because it’s disappointing. That’s all we can do. I said to the guys, ‘This is what we’re dealt and let’s just have some fun and make the best of it. There’s no sense in complaining in what’s going on. We’re all in the same boat together, so let’s just make the best of this and develop.'”
This marks the second year Cochrane and Mercer have played with the minor midgets after both were promoted up a year last season. Maguire said they were considering two aspects when they made that move.
“One was do they have the hockey ability to play, but secondly can they handle it mentally because often it can be harder on a person moving into a new age group and a whole new environment,” he said. “That was definitely a factor in our thought process. We felt they both could handle it.
“Both of them had played probably eight to 10 games with us as bantams because we had a ton of injuries in that bantam year, so we had to bring players up. They’ve proved through that string of games that they could play at this level and they could play well, and not just be players that could fill a hole. They were good players that could help our team.”
There’s plenty for scouts to like with Cochrane’s game. His strong skating allows him to move around the rink effectively and allows him to jump into the offensive rush, but what also really stands out is his physical maturity.
“He does like the physical game and he can play the physical game which really helped us also make the decision to bring him up because he was going to play against bigger, stronger, faster in the 2004 age group,” Maguire said. “We had no doubt he could handle it. That’s one of the things right now that definitely brings him out of the pack.”
Cochrane played forward and goalie in minor hockey before settling on manning the blue line early on. Asked why he likes playing defence, he doesn’t hesitate.
“Hitting,” Cochrane said before laughing out loud.
Not so much for mom.
“It’s not may favourite,” Tonia Cochrane said of the physical side of the game.
Mercer, says Maguire, is a thinker on the ice.
“He’s a smart player, his hockey IQ is very high,” he said of his centre. “He sees the ice very well and moves well. He’s a strong skater and he makes things happen. He is one of those players that controls the game when he’s on the ice.”
Mercer says he has worked with Paul Matheson at the Mariposa School of Skating to improve his skating and other parts of his game with former OHL player Zach McCullough at the National Training Rinks. He sees himself as more of pass first playmaker and admits he needs to continue to work on his shooting.
Playing up last year, he says, was a big advantage.
“You know you’ve been around the pressure, the scouts come in and stuff like that,” Mercer said. “To be able to go out this year and already have experience or to be able to go out and play not have to worry too much about that definitely is a pretty big advantage. With the hopes of playing OHL or NCAA if there’s the opportunity, playing a year up will definitely help me mentally prepare to play with the older kids. I think whichever route I take it won’t take me as long to settle in.”
Steve Mercer said his son has done a good job of staying focused on the task at hand despite not having any games to look forward to. The opportunity to play in the OHL has certainly motivated him.
“I think that’s something pushing him to work a little harder at it too,” the proud father said. “He’s played the ‘AAA’ program all the way along and it’s gotten a little more serious the past couple of years. People do mention his name and I think he feeds off that a little bit, and pushes himself to try and get better.”
Maguire said the confidence both players have in their game is another reason they decided both could handle playing a year up. Just as important was their ability to be a good teammate, something both he and Hotham require.
“They would play a league game, a tournament game or two and they came in seamlessly,” the coach said of Cochrane and Mercer who have played together since minor novice. “That also really helped us make our decision. That’s a testament to the kinds of kids they are. They’re good kids that are team guys and they just want to play and they’ll do anything to help our team. They are team players, that’s the bottom line.”
For Cochrane, it would mean the world to him to hear his name called in this year’s OHL Priority Selection.
“It’s always been a dream of mine to get drafted to the OHL,” he said.
Mercer would also love to hear his named called in the OHL draft, but right now he’s just happy he’s been able to get on the ice this season with his friends.
“It’s an unfortunate situation, but you got to look past the negatives and appreciate the positives,” he said of all they’ve been through this pandemic. “It’s been a blast to be able to get back out with my teammates and my buddies and go out to practices and have fun and see each other. I’m definitely thankful to be able to go back and practice and play with them.”