TORONTO — Shane Wright is already noticing the differences now that his name is in the same conversation as NHL star Connor McDavid.
The 15-year-old Wright became just the sixth player in history to be granted early entry into the Canadian Hockey League on March 8 under the exceptional-player rule, and on Wednesday the stands were full for his minor midget triple-A game in north Toronto, with some fans sticking around to try to meet the phenom in the making.
"It’s a little weird but it’s cool, doing interviews, signing autographs. I’ve been doing a couple (autographs) at home, making sure they’re all right," Wright joked.
Wright, who plays with the Greater Toronto Hockey League’s Don Mills Flyers, is expected to go No. 1 at the upcoming Ontario Hockey League draft after being made eligible by Hockey Canada and the Ontario Hockey Federation.
The Burlington, Ont., native produced 66 goals and 150 points in 72 games this season with the Flyers while also captaining Team Ontario to a silver medal at the Canada Games in February.
"There’s a lot of things that make him exceptional," said Marc Slawson, who has coached Wright for three seasons. "Obviously Hockey Canada and OHF are saying his fundamental skills, skating, passing, vision, work ethic, 200-foot game is another level and I agree with that.
"What people don’t see is Shane is one of the best high-character kids you’re gonna meet, He brings it all. In terms of the status it’s a no brainer for us."
The centre doesn’t stand out physically for his age, which has helped him become what he is, with the six-foot 180-pounder having to focus on skills rather than rely on a physical advantage like so many teenage players do.
"My strength is my brain, hockey ability, the way I think the game," said Wright.
Said Slawson: "Physically on the ice, is he the best minor midget to come through Toronto in the last 20 years? Probably not. The difference is the maturity.
"I don’t want to put him on a pedestal but clearly he plays with another gear. Not to say other players can’t skate as well or don’t have the (shot) release, but he’s a five-tool package… a complete package."
Wright applied for exceptional player status in December. While his dominance on the ice is evident, he wouldn’t have been given the approval to play in the OHL unless Hockey Canada and the OHF considered him to be mentally ready for playing with other skaters as old as 20.
He says he understands that being labelled exceptional won’t make his life any easier when he joins the OHL, and that the demand on a player being compared to a 15-year-old McDavid will likely never go away.
Wright spoke to Slawson early on in the season on how to deal with the extra eyes in the stands, including scouts.
"Obviously it’s pressure playing as a 15-year-old in the OHL but I’m not thinking about it. I just want to have fun…..my whole life I’ve played up in age and was kind of ahead of the curve," said Wright, who grew up a Sidney Crosby fan but now says Mathew Barzal is his favourite NHL player to watch.
"A whole other set of pressures gets thrown on your shoulders and you realize you put yourself in a unique situation," Slawson added. "Quite frankly a lot of people want to see him fail or will judge him in a different light. I wouldn’t want the pressure personally but if anyone can handle it it’s Shane."
Tavares, Aaron Ekblad, McDavid and Sean Day received exceptional-player status in the OHL, while Joe Veleno is the lone Quebec Major Junior Hockey League player to have earned the distinction. The Western Hockey League has not yet had a player under the rule.
McDavid went No. 1 to the Erie Otters in 2012, leaving then team owner Sherry Bassin a happy man.
"I’m absolutely in favour of (exceptional player status) because there are exceptional players, McDavid’s proven that," said Bassin.
"I went to see him play in October of that season, my dog Newman travelled everywhere with me and after two shifts he yanked on the chain and said ‘let’s get out of here, we’ve seen enough."’
The Kingston Frontenacs will have the chance to select Wright with the first overall pick at the OHL draft. The Frontenacs clinched last in the league on Thursday night when the Flint Firebirds beat the Windsor Spitfires 4-3 in a shootout.
Tavares, Ekblad, and McDavid went first overall in OHL and NHL drafts. Day was picked fourth overall in the OHL draft and in the third round (81st overall) of the NHL draft, while Veleno was first overall in the QMJHL draft and 30th overall at the NHL draft.
American Jack Hughes, who could go No. 1 at this year’s NHL draft, applied for exceptional player status two years ago, but didn’t get it and went down south to school.