Peterborough no-show forges a new path
It can take years for teams to recover when OHL players refuse to report but for holdouts it’s a chance to exert some power
WINDSOR — Will Cuylle was a can’t-miss prospect.
The Toronto Marlboros star was fast, strong and owned a deadly shot. And at six-foot-two, the budding power forward had all 20 Ontario Hockey League teams salivating before last April’s draft.
Peterborough Petes general manager Mike Oke, who owned the third overall selection, was a big fan.
Cuylle was just the kind of player that could help turn the franchise around after a disappointing season that saw the club go 23-39-3-3 and miss the playoffs.
There was only one problem — Cuylle didn’t want to play for Peterborough.
“I just thought the Petes weren’t the best fit for me,” the 16-year-old said.
He told the team he wouldn’t report but Oke rolled the dice on the Toronto native anyway.
“At the time of the draft I really felt that we would take who we felt was the best player available and, over time, have the opportunity to show the player and his family why Peterborough would be such a great opportunity for him to continue his hockey development but equally important to continue to develop as a person and student,” the GM said. Cuylle’s camp wasn’t swayed. Five months later the Petes traded the winger to the Windsor Spitfires for a package of draft picks.
When elite OHL players don’t report to the teams that draft them it can derail rebuilding plans, tarnish their reputation and fire up a fan base. But for players, it’s one of the rare times they can have a say in the direction of their careers.
Either way, the scenario sparks debate.
“I know the league doesn’t like the trading and all that and rightfully so since it’s uprooting players,” said player agent Darren Ferris. “But you don’t want to have a player in a situation where he’s not happy and things aren’t satisfied to the family’s best interests. That’s why these types of things happen.”
Refusing to report is nothing new.
The Kitchener Rangers were eying Petrolia prospect Mark Hunter in the first round of the 1979 Ontario Hockey Association draft but the current London Knights GM had no interest in the Blueshirts, according to a story in The Record at the time.
The report said that the Hunter clan blamed Rangers coach Bob Ertel for the mishandling of older brother Dale during his lone season at the Aud. Mark ended up going first overall to the Brantford Alexanders.
In 1989, the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds selected Eric Lindros first overall but the future NHL star balked and was later shipped to the Oshawa Generals.
More recently, the Niagara IceDogs took forward Lucas Lessio seventh overall in the 2009 draft even though he had a scholarship offer at the University of Michigan.
“I knew that there was going to be a real good chance that he might not show up and he didn’t,” said Erie Otters GM Dave Brown, who was at the helm in Niagara that year.
Lessio participated in Niagara’s orientation camp but never signed with the club and was later traded to the Oshawa Generals.
“It’s hard not to take it personal,” said Brown. “We had to work super hard the following year to get guys to report.”
Montreal Canadiens defenceman Victor Mete was also a noshow when the Owen Sound Attack chose him eighth overall in 2014.
“I had a good indication that he wasn’t coming before we selected him,” said Attack GM Dale DeGray. “But I can tell you right now that it doesn’t make it any easier to draft him. When you punch in his name (on a computer during the online draft) and know there is a good chance he’s not coming you still take a big gulp and press enter. I had never gone down that road before. It was sort of unchartered waters for me and the organization.” Mete’s issue was education. “He wanted to go to a town that had a university,” said Ferris, who represents Mete. “That was very important to the family. That was his concern.”
The rearguard got his wish when he was traded to the London Knights months after the draft.
Niagara was at a crossroads yet again in the same draft when sixth overall pick Logan Brown didn’t report. The team tried to convince the highly touted centre but was unsuccessful and traded him to Windsor.
“It certainly sets you back,” said Niagara GM Joey Burke. “It’s something you don’t want to deal with. If you’re able to avoid it and have a guy that will report then that makes it a lot easier.” If not, a payday can be had. Teams that fail to sign their first rounders have a window at the beginning of the season to make a trade. If the player is moved, clubs get an additional compensatory first round pick in the following year’s draft, one slot after their original selection. And that’s on top of whatever haul teams can get in a swap.
Niagara got five picks for Lessio and six for Brown. Mete also netted six picks while Peterborough got seven, including three second rounders, from Windsor for Cuylle.
“They’ll never admit it but I know some teams want someone that isn’t going to report so they can move him and get what they want, extra picks and so forth,” said Ferris.
Sometimes things can work out for both sides.
Niagara’s compensatory pick after losing Brown turned out to be Vegas Golden Knights prospect Ben Jones. The Waterloo native became a prized piece in the team’s rebuild and was named captain this season.
Meanwhile, Brown went on to win a Memorial Cup with the Spitfires.
“There is always a sting,” said Burke. “But being able to keep him in the league and get such a nice package and all the bells and whistles certainly makes it much easier to stomach.”
Forward Quinton Byfield was excited when Sudbury selected him first overall in this year’s draft and didn’t hesitate to call Nickel City home even though the Wolves have missed the playoffs three of the past four years.
“I think whatever team selects you, you should go,” he said. “That’s just my perspective.”
Not all players are so eager.
The Wolves had the first overall pick three years ago and chose David Levin over higher rated forwards such as Gabe Vilardi, Ryan McLeod and Owen Tippett because none of the trio, according to a league source, was keen on heading north.
Some players simply aren’t ready to move away from home while others want to play for a specific club. And while few players will admit it publicly, some just don’t want to go to a struggling franchise.
“The teams that have stable ownership, management and coaching are popular,” said Ferris. “If there is a concern with the organization’s stability or ownership’s treatment of players it’s up to the team to address it and satisfy the concern. If they can’t, a player has to make a choice on whether he wants to go or not.”
GMs usually have a sense if a player is leery about reporting. Often, agents will just come right out and say it.
Instead of getting upset, Dave Brown says it’s good to look inward. When one parent had an issue with Erie’s academic model, he altered it.
In recent years, Peterborough has added support staff, spruced up its players’ lounge and improved its off-ice training setup, among other things, to be more appealing.
“I think deep down we all try to do what’s right for the kids,” Brown said. “Sometimes in situations you have to make changes.”
Burke relies on in-depth interviews before the draft to get a sense on whether a player will report or not.
“The bottom line is that if a guy isn’t excited to come to Niagara then we’re not particularly excited about bringing him in,” he said. “If they don’t want to be here then you never know what the chemistry is going to be with the whole team.”
DeGray has no ill-will toward Mete. The two have run into one another at Hockey Canada camps over the years and get along just fine.
“I didn’t draft Victor to screw him over or hurt him,” he said. “I drafted him because, for me, he was the best next player in the draft period, by a long shot. Parents want what’s best for their kids whether they’re right or wrong or who’s pushing the buttons. A lot of things come into play and you just hope it works out.”
GMs say the issue is a hot topic but that they haven’t really discussed no-shows at league meetings. The OHL did not respond to an interview request for this story.
“I think one of the problems is that instead of being 20 teams strong, we talk badly about one another,” said Brown. “We think if we negatively recruit against one another, it’s going to make us look better. Something bad happens to one of the teams and everyone talks about it. I try to get away from that.”
Cuylle was criticized when he bypassed Peterborough but has no regrets.
“I think it’s fair for people to have an opinion but at the end of the day, it’s my hockey career,” he said. “You do have a say in where you want to play.”
Cuylle has 10 points through 15 games for Windsor and is a central part in the Spitfires’ bid to rebuild into a contender.
Meanwhile, Peterborough is off to a surprising 11-8 start and tied for second in the OHL’s eastern conference.
“We didn’t make the pick with the intent of recouping draft picks or getting a compensation pick,” said Oke. “We made the pick with the idea of getting the player. It was unfortunate that we weren’t able to have him come and play here.
“I don’t think you can afford to take anything personal in this business. Everybody has the right to make their own decisions. We’re excited about the direction we’re headed.”
Windsor Spitfires forward Willy Cuylle is having a productive season after refusing to report to the Peterborough Petes, the OHL team that drafted him.
Peterborough general manager Mike Oke tried to convince third overall draft pick Will Cuylle to report to the Petes but ending up trading him to Windsor.