By: Bryan Thiel
Ryan Merkley may still be smiling.
On Saturday, the 15-year old GTHL Player of the Year was wearing the same smile he had on Friday morning in Guelph; a smile that will probably be plastered on his face until training camp begins.
He is, after all, the first overall pick in the 2016 OHL Priority Selection.
Wouldn’t you be smiling?
“It’s very exciting and I’m really honoured to be in the same category as guys like Chychrun, Stamkos and Spezza” he said. “It’s settling in a little more as time goes on, but it (first overall) hasn’t really set in yet. It’s just really exciting.”
Merkley and his family took over the OHL’s head office on Saturday morning during the draft, each of them in brand new gear courtesy of the Guelph Storm as they watched Ryan and others go through interviews and photo ops.
As Ryan, who finished the year with 44 points in 33 games for the Toronto Jr. Canadiens, stepped in front of the canvas the first time, he would turn and laugh in between photos as his younger cousin weaved his way between everyone. During the second shoot with Owen Lalonde and Connor Roberts, he’d flex his stick with a mischievous grin, laughing along with the second and third overall picks.
At a quiet point, I turned to him and asked if the burgundy shirt/tie combo peeking out from under his jersey was by design. “Yeah. Once we found out I was going to Guelph we went suit shopping,” he beamed, like any teenager would. How long did he know that Guelph would be where he started his junior hockey career? Not one to spill a secret, the lips of the smile tightened a bit and he responded with a simple answer: “a while.”
The smile mostly represents the excitement of being the first overall pick, but a part of it comes from who he was drafted by. The Guelph Storm aren’t typically at the top of the draft board. The last time they missed the playoffs was 1991/92, which was also the last time the franchise held the first overall pick and selected Jeff O’Neill. Since 2005, their highest draft picks have been Drew Doughty (5th in 2005) and Robby Fabbri (6th in 2012); they’ve otherwise held court in the middle part of the first round and done relatively well for themselves. It’s the rarity of the franchise finding itself with a top pick that had his dad comparing it to if Ryan had been drafted by the Detroit Red Wings.
“They’ve been to the Memorial Cup five times in the past 20 years and they won the league (in 2014),” Ryan said, proving he’d done his research on his new home. “I was actually there for their run a few years ago and it was so much fun.” The confines of the Sleeman Centre will be a little more friendly as well, as Merkley will also have a familiar face in the locker room with him; he works out and skates with Guelph’s third-round pick from last year Nick Deakin-Poot.
The dynamic defenceman wasn’t even thrown by the fact that he’s now the central figure in a big rivalry. Merkley’s family has ties to London which, of course, is Knights country. But is he concerned about who his family members will be siding with when he walks into Budweiser Gardens?
“They said they’ll come over and be Guelph fans, so hopefully when we go up to London they’ll be wearing Storm jerseys,” Merkley chuckled.
And if they’re still wearing Knights gear? “I’ll prove them wrong with a Guelph win hopefully.”
The only thing that threw a wrench into Merkley’s plans was watching teammates and friends scatter themselves across the OHL. Upon finding out one of his friends had been snapped up by the Kitchener Rangers, Merkley was disappointed. “I guess you guys are rivals now”, someone said. “I guess we are,” murmured Merkley as he turned back to the set and the smile quickly returned.
Now that the draft is over, a summer of training begins: getting bigger, stronger, and faster. That’s what’s on the mind of all the rookies as they set their sights on OHL rosters come September.
With that comes the added pressure of being a first overall pick, and drawing comparisons to other famous OHL Ryans in Ellis and Murphy. There will be blood, sweat, and tears, ups and downs, and good days and bad. But for the Guelph Storm, their fans, and the new face of the franchise there will be one constant.
They can think about these two days in April…and smile.
Bryan Thiel is a freelance broadcaster who has covered the OHL from rink-side and the broadcast booth. He has also helped produce OHL features for the past four seasons. You can follow him on Twitter @BryanThiel_88.