Canadiens' Nick Suzuki was once Owen Sound's 'humble superstar'

Montreal Canadiens centre Nick Suzuki (14) celebrates a goal against the Florida Panthers on Jan. 1, 2022, in Sunrise, Fla. (Michael Reaves/AP)

If you ever find yourself at an Owen Sound Attack home game, it won’t be difficult to spot Dale DeGray. No box, no booth. Instead, the Attack general manger stands in the same corner of J.D. McArthur Arena and even leans on the same railing to get that perfect vantage point.

A former scout for the Florida Panthers and a self-described “watcher of the game,” DeGray has been able to watch some incredible young talent from that view during his 15 years with Owen Sound. Undoubtedly, one of the most accomplished players he has encountered is current Montreal Canadiens star Nick Suzuki.

“He was arguably one of the smartest visionary sort of kids in the OHL draft,” DeGray said, thinking back to the first time he scouted Suzuki when he played AAA for the London Junior Knights. “I thought he was an average to better-than-average skater but did not have breakaway speed and was really, really smart. He saw the ice really well, was an incredible passer and creative. You know, he was one of the first guys I got to watch bank pucks off the side of a goalie and into the net.”

Suzuki is known today as one of the more dexterous NHL forwards under the age of 23, but it was far more than toe-drags and saucer passes that endeared him to DeGray and Owen Sound right from the get-go.

“My first time meeting him, I met him and his father in an interview where I had them come up to Owen Sound and after my first meeting with Nick I did say to my head scout, ‘That's the player we're going to draft,’” explained DeGray, who took Suzuki with the 14th-overall pick of the 2015 OHL Priority Selection.

In his first season in the OHL, the London, Ont., native earned a spot on the OHL First All-Rookie Team and more than doubled his production as a sophomore. Beyond the incredible statistics and flashy highlight reel, the centre made a lasting impression because of how he conducted himself behind the scenes.

“I would say that Nick is a very humble superstar. He really, really is,” DeGray said. “In junior hockey, he was a humble superstar. He had time for kids and people in and around Owen Sound. He was very respectful. He really was a first-class individual. He was never a guy where he knew how good he was and he told everybody. He let people tell him how good he was and I really, really respected that about his demeanor.”

Nick Suzuki had 129 goals, 150 assists for 279 points in 222 games with Owen Sound. (Terry Wilson/OHL Images)

It’s difficult quantifying a person’s character, however Suzuki did finish his junior career as a three-time William Hanley Trophy recipient as OHL Most Sportsmanlike Player as well as being named CHL Sportsman of the Year during his second season.

“Just an unbelievable talent, but more importantly such a good down-to-earth kid,” fellow Attack alumnus Joey Hishon told Sportsnet. “Does so much for his friends and the community around him. I have so much respect for him and really appreciate the opportunity to work with him.”

Hishon, currently an Attack assistant coach and the team’s assistant GM, helps train Suzuki in the off-season. Suzuki and Hishon rank second and third, respectively, behind Bobby Ryan on Owen Sound’s all-time goals and points lists.

Hishon originally joined the Attack staff ahead of Suzuki’s final season in Owen Sound in 2018-19, but only got to work with Suzuki for about half the campaign because Suzuki was dealt to the Guelph Storm as part of a blockbuster trade.

“I wish I could sit here and tell you exactly what we got in return, but as far as doing that trade I have no qualms,” DeGray said. “I'm a big believer in doing what's right for the player. I've got a window of opportunity to get the most out of these players and if it means moving them on so that they can better their careers, even if it's just their junior careers and we're going to get assets back for that, I'm going to do what's best for everybody.”

The move turned out great for Suzuki. He recorded 49 points in 29 regular-season games before adding 16 goals and 42 points in 24 playoff games, capturing an OHL Cup with Guelph. Unsurprisingly, Suzuki also added a CHL Memorial Cup Most Sportsmanlike Player trophy to his collection that spring.

Suzuki's success with Guelph helped him make Montreal's opening-day roster in 2019-20. (Andrew Vaughan/CP)

DeGray mentioned he doesn’t specifically have a favourite memory of Suzuki’s time in Owen Sound since there were so many high points during his junior career, but every so often he’ll reflect upon one particular moment from a random regular-season game.

“I can’t remember the other player, but people used to think ‘Nick's slight framed, he's not very solid’ and stuff but I remember one time he was carrying the puck down and a good-sized defenceman tried to start to play him straight up and come across to try to hit him. Nick caught it at the last second, realized what was going to happen and he lowered his shoulder and Nick almost, in step, skated right over top of this guy,” DeGray recalled. “At that point, I thought to myself, ‘Anybody who's watching this game has to realize just how strong Nick Suzuki is.’ Never mind how skilled and all the other stuff, but just how strong he is and how strong he skates. For his ability to do that, I was actually blown away.”

Suzuki being sturdier than his frame might've suggested was a contributing factor to him being selected 13th overall by the Vegas Golden Knights in the 2017 NHL Draft.

DeGray, 58, was a draft pick of the Flames in 1981 and played 153 NHL games split between Calgary, Toronto, Los Angeles and Buffalo. He knows how meaningful and potentially life-changing it is for players to make that walk to the stage after hearing their name called.

“I was at the draft. I go to all the drafts,” DeGray said. “I enjoy every draft I go to whether one of our players is there or not. You take a lot of sort of fatherly pride, to be honest with you, in the fact that one of your players are selected by one of the 32 teams in the seven rounds. It's a dream they all have and to be able to be a part of helping them get there? I love it. It's huge.”

Suzuki, whose rights were traded to Montreal in the Max Pacioretty deal before he even made his NHL debut, is listed at 5-foot-11 and 205 pounds. That doesn’t exactly scream NHL power forward, but Hishon has noticed a clear progression from Suzuki since he turned pro.

“Usually kids that have high hockey sense translate really well to the NHL level and he obviously did that ... then he just started to continue to get stronger,” Hishon added. “He's always been in good physical condition, but every time I see him every summer, he's gotten bigger, he's gotten stronger.”

As the 22-year-old’s strength and statistics blossom at the NHL level and Suzuki's stock continues rising with each pro season, in Owen Sound he’ll always be that humble superstar.

“People in our organization are still in touch with him and I know if I called him and he couldn't take my call, he would definitely call me back,” DeGray added. “That's the type of kid that he was. Very respectful, very mindful of everybody around him and quite honestly, just went out and played and got better every single day, every week, every month and every year. And that's got him to where he is.”

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