The fallout from the end of the NHL lockout could have crippled the Barrie Colts.
It was early January when signs of life emerged in North America’s top league. What it meant for a team like the Colts was a world of uncertainty which, coupled with a hard deadline, made for some tense days throughout the junior circuit.
The Colts knew they would lose Mark Scheifele to the Winnipeg Jets. They just didn’t know if his departure was indefinite, as turned out to be the case with Sarnia’s Alex Galchenyuk.
There was less than half a week between the NHL’s collective bargaining agreement coming together and the Ontario Hockey League’s trade deadline. Not nearly enough time for many junior hockey general managers to make an educated guess on their top players’ playing futures.
The NHL’s return cast a dark, ominous cloud on its main feeder league.
It left the Colts, a team sitting first in the Central Division standings, a question without an easy answer. They could have sold the farm to better position themselves for their MasterCard Memorial Cup hosting bid next season or to proceed with the hope Scheifele might return.
As Barrie management moved forward without the foresight to predict Scheifele’s future, they made a commitment to the players who played them into one of the league’s top spots.
"It would have been disappointing to the rest of the team if we said, ‘well, we’re not getting Scheifele back so we’re going to trade everybody else and go for next year,’" general manager Jason Ford said.
Scheifele’s audition in Winnipeg was three games shorter this year than it was the previous season, a result of an amended rule in the new CBA where a year burned on a player’s contract quicker than before.
The Colts made two trades the day of the deadline, acquiring 19-year-old forward Mitchell Theoret from the Niagara IceDogs and 18-year-old defenceman Jake Dotchin from the Owen Sound Attack. These were two players, Ford indicated, who would have become Colts regardless of Scheifele’s uncertain future.
"From our perspective, going into the trade deadline and with the NHL lockout (ending), we knew what we had on the table in front of us and what direction we’d look to go and what our options were," he said. "We just had to collect all information beforehand and make that decision a little later than maybe usual.
"We didn’t really go out and get any ‘rent-a-players’ this year. The trades we made were guys that were going to be back for the ’13-14 season as well. We kept in mind we’re bidding (to host) the Memorial Cup and that’s one of the reasons why we did that, to get players that were going to help us for the two-year run."
The Colts, meanwhile, watched with bated breath to see if Scheifele would return. The difference between their team with Scheifele and without could come down to a championship won or lost.
After going pointless in four games, the Jets sent Scheifele back to Barrie in early February, nearly a full month after the trade deadline. In a way, his return was like a trade after the deadline, only one which guaranteed synergy.
"He’s a popular kid amongst his teammates," Ford said. "It was a huge boost knowing that the kids, they look up to him, they like him, he’s a good teammate and he’s a heck of a hockey player that they know are going to help the team win.
"He’s been playing with some of these guys for three years. You can’t trade for those situations. Essentially, it’s like an addition to our lineup at a crucial time of year. It was important for us."
Thanks in part to Scheifele, who put up five points in Monday’s 6-3 win in Game 3 of the OHL final over London, the Colts are now within two wins of capturing their first J. Ross Robertson Cup as league champions since the 1999-2000 season.
The Colts are vying for the title four months after needing to determine if it was still worth chasing. They’re glad they did.
"He’s a top-class player, junior-aged player," Ford said. "Happy to see him get those points (in Game 3) and, more importantly, the team get the win."
With Scheifele back in their lineup, the team’s been getting a lot of those.