By Gene Pereira
With one move, James Hardie was around the defender and in alone on Toronto Jr. Canadiens goaltender Sami Molu in the first period of their Ontario Hockey League (OHL) Cup opening game. Though he’d be denied this time, missing prime scoring chances is a rare thing for the Colts triple-A minor midget star.
Hardie could be as pure a goal scorer as any player available in the OHL Priority selection on April 7. Barrie head coach, Josh Dahmer, sees a potent finisher who reminds him a little bit of Toronto Maple Leafs centre Austin Matthews. Not that Hardie will duplicate the success of one of the NHL’s top young stars, but the similarities are there when it comes to each having the puck on their stick.
“He’s a guy who can only take one shift and he can change the whole game,” said Dahmer, whose Colts advanced to the quarter-finals of the OHL Cup before falling 3-2 to the Toronto Marlboros on March 17. “You saw it there. You’re wanting more and more and he makes one play. He toe-drags the guy and almost scores.
“He can change the game like that in one shift. That’s his quick-strike ability and we’re lucky to have him on the team. When he’s going, he’s going.”
And Hardie has been going a lot this season. The five-foot-11, 155-pound Innisfil native found the back of the net 41 times in just 34 games with Barrie in the Eastern triple-A Hockey League. Scoring, he says, has come naturally for him since the day he first laced up the skates.
“I guess,” said the 16-year-old, who finished OHL Cup play with 3 goals and 5 assists. “Since I was a little kid, I’ve always been able to score. I’ve just done it.”
Put the puck on his stick inside the blue line and the Colt believes he can make something happen.
“Every time I touch the puck, it just feels good,” added Hardie, who finished his OHL draft year with 70 points. “Hoping I can score and sometimes it works.”
Dahmer, who has coached Hardie for three seasons, admits his young sniper has scored some of the nicest goals he’s seen. Still, he jokes it’s been a love-hate relationship at times with Hardie. As a coach, Dahmer wants to see more defence. As a player, Hardie wants to make plays.
“You’re going to yell at him and then he scores,” Dahmer said, before laughing out loud. “We do have a lot of fun and he does have the odd ability to make plays.”
There are times he’s on the ice and the coach is thinking, “What are you doing?”
“Then boom, he puts it in the back of the net and it’s ‘Oh, that’s why you’re doing that,'” Dahmer explained.
Dahmer still recalls a short-side power-play goal by Hardie against York Simcoe.
“Not many guys can shoot that shot,” he said. “He has the ability to do that. He’s a difference maker.”
While Hardie loves scoring, the Colt has worked hard to shore up other parts of his game, which of course includes his play without the puck.
“I’ve been really working on that,” said the forward, who some scouts believe could go as early as late first round or early second round in the draft. “I can play with the puck. I know I can do that. I just have to work on without the puck, I guess.”
He also spent last summer working on his skating, another area he needs to continue improving.
“I always have my skating coach pushing me to get better and better and improve my stride,” he said.
Dahmer says Hardie has been much better on the defensive side of the puck, but like most young players it’s a work in progress.
“It’s something we’ve worked with him, to be a 200-foot player,” the Barrie coach explained. “He’s getting better and better at it. There’s still room for improvement when they’re 15 or 16 (years old) and they’re going to get better at the next level.”
Dahmer says his young forward wants to learn. Wants to improve and do what it takes. Changing old habits, though, isn’t easy.
“A guy like him, who’s a natural goal scorer, that’s all he’s been doing since he’s been four or five and he’s gotten away with it because he’s so talented,” the Colts coach added. “To get him to play on the right side and take care of defence, it’s a tough process. He’s bought in and he’s working at it because he knows he has to work at it.”
The OHL Cup features the best minor midget teams across the province playing in front of packed stands with scouts watching every shift, every move. Hardie knows there’s plenty of eyes on him, but he’s tried to keep his focus has on the ice and helping his team win. Everything else will take care of itself.
“You’re always feeling the pressure, but you do it (playing in front of scouts) all the time every game you play, so it’s kind of just usual now,” said Hardie, who got into four games this season with the Newmarket Hurricanes in the Ontario Junior Hockey League.
Dahmer says Hardie, like his teammates, have handled the pressure well.
“It must be tough because his name goes on Twitter,” the head coach said. “His name goes on every social media thing all the time, so the expectations are there. He’s handled it well and he’s mature for a young guy.”
ICE CHIPS: Cameron Snow and Rylee Hlusiak scored for Barrie in the loss to the Marlboros. Colts goaltender Rhys Baberg was outstanding in the loss, turning aside 43 shots. . . Tyson Foerster led all Barrie scorers with five goals and 4 assists for nine points in five games. . . The Colts entered the OHL Cup ranked No. 10 overall in the province.
Photo: Barrie Colts triple-A minor midget forward James Hardie says he feels good every time he has the puck on his stick.