If the average OHL fan is more than a tad frustrated with the lack of progress in seeing the 2020-2021 season come to fruition, try being in the shoes of Josh Kavanagh.
A fifth round pick of the Peterborough Petes in April of 2019, the smooth-skating local blueliner enjoyed what many would term a better than average developmental year as a 16 year-old.
Signed on primarily to play with the Peterborough U18 AAA Petes last winter, Kavanagh shone, particularly in an offensive role, earning himself an eight game audition with the big club. All of which, under normal circumstances, would have one of four brothers in the Valley East based family just chomping at the bit, ready to make the jump to major junior on a full-time basis this past September.
"I didn't think I would be home this long," said Kavanagh, completing home workouts during the province-wide holiday lockdown. "I worked really hard to try and get to the first (OHL) deadline in August and worked hard to get to the next one in November. Now, it's just at the point where it’s so long.”
Thankfully, Kavanagh is not unaccustomed to hitting a bump in the road.
As a member of a very impressive 2003-collection of local talent, the 6’1” prospect had to deal with a broken wrist, smack dab in the middle of when he should have been showcasing himself to rinks full of scouts. “I was out for two months, missed a lot of big tournaments,” said Kavanagh.
“I tried to play in the Marlies tournament and that didn’t go well. There was a lot of stress, just because I saw myself as a good defenceman who could go well in the draft.”
Where some may have felt beaten down, Kavanagh re-emerged with conviction, blessed with an inner confidence in his ability to take that next step. “I finally decided that no matter what round I went in, I was going to prove to that team that I was well worth the pick.”It didn’t take long for the Petes to realize what they had. Along with fellow prospects Cole Patey and goaltender Michael Simpson, Kavanagh was practicing, pretty much daily, with the OHL crew last year. “We were on the ice with them every morning before school,” noted the long-time member of the Nickel City Sons organization. “We had kind of the same schedule as them; we just weren’t playing (OHL) games. It was still great to be exposed to how they play, all of their systems. Last year was really about learning what they (the Petes) do, and how hard the OHL is, how much quicker it is, how much faster it is.”
“Coming into this year, I was more prepared - I know what it’s like.”
What he did not know, much like the rest of the world, is that a full nine months after the cancellation of the first professional sporting events began, fans of junior hockey still had very little sense of normalcy.
Taking advantage of the opportunity to at least get on-ice workouts in during the fall with the Espanola Express, Kavanagh would decide to stay with the team when the NOJHL unveiled their COVID-compliant schedule, establishing an array of two team mini-series that featured no intentional body checking.
“I decided to join, just to get some hockey in and make sure that I still have a feel for the game,” he said. And much as he did in his draft year, Kavanagh is making the best of a less than ideal situation. He is keenly aware of exactly what parts of his game require his undivided attention.
“I’m not the best player in the defensive zone,” he said. “I know that and so do the Petes. We worked really hard on that last year and this year, playing with Espanola, I am still trying to get better in the D zone. I’m working on that and it’s coming along pretty well.”
In fact, while the scenario might be different, the approach that Kavanagh is using is not all that dissimilar to the manner in which he has always tried to tackle his hockey development. “I watch a lot of hockey, try and look for little things, put extra time in after practice. I think that’s the biggest and most important time that we have in the week, to work on things that you need to work on, maybe little in tight things, things that can help me a lot.”
“Taking the extra time to work on things that will benefit your game tends to make things go well.”
And while it would be easy enough to sulk over a half-season lost to the unwelcomed virus, Kavanagh maintains a very healthy perspective, right down to an appreciation for the new man behind the bench in Espanola.
“Our coach (Brent Hughes) is a really tough coach,” acknowledged Kavanagh. “He knows the Peterborough guys well, so he’s on me pretty hard. I think the biggest thing I can take from this is having him here to watch me, to prepare me for the OHL. Sure, there is no hitting and not as many battles in the corner, but there is a lot of time with the puck.”
“I am just trying to make sure my passes are hard and that I get them off quick, because I won’t have that much time when I get to the OHL. I’m working on my quick feet, helping me to get out of situations with puck battles. I don’t have the hardest shot, but just making sure that you get pucks through is so important, at any level.”
“It’s about really focusing on making those smart plays, not just chipping the puck outside the zone, but making that first pass instead of just throwing it out.”
Where many a northern draftee has felt absolutely compelled to head south in search of better competition, Kavanagh sees a larger picture at hand. “To me, the only thing that really matters when you are playing at any level is having the chance to play a lot of minutes,” he said, noting yet another positive takeaway from the Espanola experience.
“I would play on any team, it doesn’t matter where, as long as I am getting a lot of minutes, a lot of exposure. I don’t want to play on the best team but only play five minutes a game and not have any exposure to the OHL.”
This off-ice maturity, combined with the improvements they are seeing in his on-ice production, is undoubtedly part of the reason why the Petes remain hands-on with Kavanagh’s development.
“The general manager (Michael Oke) has (on-line) meetings with us every Thursday, just to keep us in the loop,” said Kavanagh. “But the defensive coach also reaches out to me quite often, just checking in to see how I am, which is really awesome. Even last year, when I wasn’t actually part of the team but was still really close, they had a lot of one on one meetings, just to make sure that I am doing the right things.”
Things like remaining patient, focused on the long game, even when the light at the end of the tunnel may not yet be clearly in sight. At least not quite yet.