The contrast between where Mark Scheifele just was and where he hopes to be next year could not have been more stark, set off as it was by scores of empty seats.
The 19-year-old might have played at a sold-out Scotiabank Place last Saturday on Hockey Night in Canada if he had stretched out his stay with the Winnipeg Jets for a few more days. Now that his need to improve his balance and strength in order to augment his playmaking has dictated a return to the Barrie Colts, he was playing in front of an announced crowd of 2,021 diehards willing to make the suburban commute to support the last-place Ottawa 67's during a rebuilding season. The Colts won 10-1, with Scheifele counting a hat trick plus three assists.
It was a night to wonder what Scheifele could be getting out of major junior. With the CHL-NHL agreement being what it is, there seemed little way to sneak in a "Well, what if you could go play for the St. John's IceCaps?" question. Does a 19-year-old weigh himself down with such a hypothetical? The big takeaway, though, came after the fourth and fifth Colts goals in the second period. On the 4-1 marker, where Scheifele flicked a fat rebound out of midair, the Colts celebrated like kids. But when Zach Hall got the-rout's-on power-play marker that was set up by Scheifele four minutes later, Barrie was casual — no raised sticks, no dreceiving line of high-fives past the bench.
Scheifele was part of making the call not to rub it in while the young 67's confidence crumbled (as Colts coach Dale Hawerchuk, whose team finished last two seasons ago, put it, "When you're on the poor end of it, it's hard to get your body to move"). That spoke to the biggest gain he hopes to make out of the rest of the season, being a leader.
"That was just all the players," said Scheifele, who was the No. 7 overall pick in the 2011 draft and has played 11 games for the Jets, total, at the start of each of the past two seasons. "I think it was after one of [his line's] goals. We just decided, we're not going to go by the bench.
"You don't want to do anything to disrespect the other team," added Scheifele, who has 61 points in 34 games with Barrie, a statline somewhat inflated by getting 16 in three contests against the 67's. "We've all been in that situation. If you were in that situation and you were losing, you wouldn't want the other team cellying, raising their sticks and going by the bench. You never know when you're going to be on the end of it."
Leadership can come off as rather nebulous to those on the outside looking in who know one should never claim to know what it's like in someone else's dressing room. Overage defenceman Ryan O'Connor is the captain in Barrie, but as soon as Scheifele was sent back, their season became all about No. 19 leading by doing. Scheifele played through being hurt and having a target on his back in last spring's OHL playoffs when the Colts had a 3-1 series lead get away against Ottawa before losing in Game 7 overtime.
If he gets four or five points, well, he's supposed to do so. If he gets shut out and the Colts lose, knees start jerking. Getting Barrie deep into the spring is the answer.
"That leadership comes from doing the little things on the ice, being the unselfish guy," Colts coach Dale Hawerchuk said. "Mark recognized even early tonight to play the other guys, It was one of those nights. Him and I have each lived those nights and he's come a long way from it. We were part of shellacking one night in Niagara [two seasons ago].
"The leadership qualities come from being that ultimate team guy."
Winnipeg fans might have fretted about ruining a bright young player's confidence by rotating him between being a checking-line wing a healthy scratch. There could also be impatience stemming from fact the Jets took Scheifele in 2011 instead of now-established NHLers Sean Couturier and Dougie Hamilton. Couturier, who had played 161 more major junior games than the later-blooming Scheifele had before the '11 draft, stepped directly into the Philadelphia Flyers lineup. Hamilton went back to the Niagara IceDogs for a season and a half and has moved right on to the Boston Bruins blueline.
But Scheifele apparently just needs more time to collect all the pieces of the pro puzzle.
"That's a huge thing that Winnipeg talked to me about — being a leader on a good team," he said. "That's a huge thing for me right now — be a good leader, lead by example, lead in the room. There are a lot of good players that I can teach and learn from, too."
The Colts have only had Scheifele in the lineup for five games since he left in the second week of December to join Team Canada for the world junior championship. He fit in one game in between the long schlep back from Sochi, Russia, before the lockout ended and he was whisked away to Winnipeg. After Wednesday's no-contest, the Colts are 24-8-1-1 with him in the lineup, good for a .735 point percentage that would almost rival the league-leading London Knights' .759. They are 11-8-0-1 (.575) without him. That tells you how much he means to Barrie.
"I think he's probably been the most dominant guy in the league," Hawerchuk said. "[Oshawa Generals captain] Boone Jenner's been dominant at times and Alex Galchenyuk was dominant when he was here [with the Sarnia Sting before graduating to the Montreal Canadiens]. This is a development league with a lot of good players and Mark's developing really well. His goal is to be that type of leader so that Winnipeg creates something for him next year."
By most accounts, Scheifele did not take being sent back hard. There is always something to learn. He did note that lasting a little longer with Winnipeg just meant for a different reunion with two ex-Colts teammates on the 67's.
"I know a few of my buddies on Ottawa like [goalie Clint] Windsor and [winger Brendan] Bell, they were wishing I was playing so they could come watch," he said.
"But it's not bad being here, we've got a good team."
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet. Please address any questions, comments or concerns to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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