Underage OHL draft prospect Shane Wright going first overall to Kingston

Shane Wright of the Don Mills Flyers. (Dan Hickling/GTHL Hickling Images via CP)

John Tavares and Aaron Ekblad know exactly what Shane Wright is feeling.

Granted exceptional player status last month after a review by Hockey Canada, the 15-year-old Wright will be selected first overall by the Kingston Frontenacs in Saturday’s Ontario Hockey League draft.

Tavares was the first to go through the process back in 2005 when the Oshawa Generals made him the top pick at 15, while Ekblad went No. 1 at the same age to the Barrie Colts in 2011.

"It was a whirlwind and something that changed my life forever," said Tavares, now a star centre with the Toronto Maple Leafs. "It was big eye-opener for me that I had a special opportunity to get to the NHL, and this was a major step towards that.

"I was just really excited."

Despite the fact he would soon be facing players five years his senior, Ekblad recalls being confident.

"It’s not easy," said the Florida Panthers defenceman. "When you’re that age, you’re obviously not as physically developed as a 19-, 20- or 21-year-old.

"You might have a little bit of a target on your back, but you’ve got to be able to manage that."

Tavares would go on to be drafted first overall by the New York Islanders in 2009, while Eklad heard his name called first by Florida in 2014. Connor McDavid, granted exceptional status by the OHL in 2012 before getting selected first by the Erie Otters, then went No. 1 to the Edmonton Oilers in 2015.

"I got a little a little homesick a couple of months in," Tavares said of his time in Oshawa. "I didn’t really think about a lot of that other stuff because I was just excited to be a part of the league."

Frontenacs president Doug Gilmour confirmed his team would pick Wright on Friday at Kingston’s city hall. The OHL traditionally allows teams with the first selection to make the announcement a day before the draft.

Wright led the Don Mills Flyers to the OHL Cup minor-midget championship this season, earning tournament MVP honours. The native of Burlington, Ont., had 66 goals and 84 assists for 150 points in 72 games.

Players eligible for major junior hockey league drafts are usually required to turn 16 during that year.

Wright is the sixth player to be given exceptional-player status in the CHL since the policy was introduced in 2005 with Tavares.

Tavares, Ekblad, McDavid and Sean Day also got early entry into the OHL, while Joe Veleno received the same treatment in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. Day and Veleno have yet to play in the NHL.

Wright joins a Frontenacs team that has never reached the OHL final and becomes the third player in franchise history to be selected first overall. Drake Berehowsky was taken with the top pick by the then-Kingston Raiders in 1988 and fellow defenceman Bryan Fogarty was selected No. 1 by the then-Kingston Canadians in 1985.

While dominant on the ice, Wright wouldn’t have been given the approval to play in the OHL unless Hockey Canada and the Ontario Hockey Federation considered him to be mentally ready for to make the jump.

The same, of course, went for Tavares and Ekblad.

"My mom put up a bit of a fight," Ekblad said. "She didn’t want her first son out of the house that quickly at 15 years old. That’s not something that happens all too often in the normal world.

"Ultimately we knew it was the best decision."

Tavares said looking back he can only imagine how difficult it was for his parents to let him head out on his own when he had just finished Grade 9.

"They knew how bad I wanted to be in the OHL," he said. "Their support was incredible. They saw how excited I was to be a part of that. They felt probably it was the best challenge for me, and I did, too. We weren’t really sure what to do the next year and where I was going to play.

"That was going to be the best challenge for me to keep getting better."

Ekblad said his message to Wright is simple.

"Stay positive," he said. "It’s not going to be easy, nothing ever is. It’s not easy for a 16-year-old making that transition, so as a 15-year-old it’s going to be even harder.

"I wouldn’t change a thing. Everyone’s different, but where I am today was the goal."

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