Cameron Lizotte is not the same player he was some three years ago, as he prepared to join the elite of minor hockey prospects at the AllState All-Canadians Mentorship Camp in June of 2012. And that is not a bad thing at all.
A "can't miss" prospect who excelled throughout his minor hockey days locally, even as he generally played one age group up within the "AAA" ranks, Lizotte has been dealt the adversity that many more who came before him have endured.
It has been proven, over and over again, that those who learn and grow from those experiences often excel in the long run. In that sense, a chat with the young Nickel Centre native offers plenty of reason for optimism.
As a rookie with the Peterborough Petes in 2013-2014, Lizotte would dress for less than half the team's regular season games, suiting up just 33 times. This despite being selected early in the second round, 25th overall into the OHL.
"Surprisingly, it wasn't what happened on the ice that helped me the most," said the bruising blueliner, who just recently cracked the top-100 of the NHL scouting list for the upcoming 2015 Entry Draft.
"I think I learned a lot about mental toughness. Not being in the lineup all the time, really struggling to show yourself on the ice, it's tough to stay positive." For many junior players, there will come a point in time where they "get it", or they don't.
Lizotte was no different. "I was kind of lost, the first season, and even the first half of the second season," he said. "I just wasn't sure what my identity was. After Christmas, I just started playing a really hard shutdown role, and being physical, and really being sure that my end was being taken care of."
Not at all the same Cameron Lizotte who would zig-zag effortlessly from one end of the ice to the other in his minor hockey days, trying so hard to be all things to all people.
"One of the biggest things you learn here is the importance of puck movement," said the 6'1" 191-pounder. "In minor hockey, I was able to skate with it, but when you get here, you have no time. It's off your stick and out. My first pass is a big thing I had to learn."
Thankfully, Lizotte remained in an environment where his development could continue, even if not initially at the pace the youngest of the three boys in the family would have liked.
"I think the most encouraging thing I heard at exit interviews last year was that they (Peterborough) had confidence in me that I can play," he said. "I came into this year and my focus was just to play minutes, get ice time and play more of a shutdown role."
"I think I exceeded my expectations in the second half of the season." The fact that the spike in his play coincided with the tradeline moves that would see overage defenseman Connor Boland shipped to Sault Ste Marie, along with forward Nick Ritchie, was no coincidence.
"After trade deadline, especially with us losing both our captain and assistant, it gave other guys, like myself, a chance to play more," he said. More than anything else, it was about understanding a role that he could play, even if that role differed substantially from the style of hockey that initially drew the attention of OHL scouts.
"In the off-season (2014), I got a lot stronger," Lizotte explained. "On the ice, I started to realize that I was able to out-muscle guys, to protect the puck when I had it. It was a bit of feedback from the coaches, and a little bit of me just looking around."
"I definitely want to build where I left off this season, enhance my role as a shutdown guy," he continued. "Still keep working on my offensive skills, make some plays in the offensive end, but my main goal is to get smarter and stronger in handling my own end."
That epiphony is music to the ears of the Petes, who would love nothing more than to build their defense, in part, around a stay-at-home defender who skates well and enjoys an offensive upside.
"We're going to be young next year," said Lizotte. "A lot of hard-working guys with good, positive energy. I want to try and bring in some leadership next year." Leadership learned through the lessons of his first two years of junior hockey.