ERIE, Pa. – Justin Bailey was crushed, in nearly every sense of the word.
One huge hit just three games into his junior hockey career turned what was supposed to be a happy Buffalo homecoming into a depressing trip to the sidelines. The concussion-causing blast knocked the Williamsville native out of USA Hockey’s All-American Prospects Game in September, ruining his first chance to show NHL scouts why they should draft him.
Two months later, Bailey is able to smile about his unfortunate turn of events. In fact, the 17-year-old looks at the hit as a positive moment. It introduced him to a higher level of hockey, showed him what it will take to succeed in the Ontario Hockey League.
“I think it’s for the better,” the Kitchener Rangers right winger said Saturday before a 4-2 victory over the Erie Otters. “Last year, I think if I would have made that same play I probably would have gone down and scored or had a good opportunity, whereas this year that’s what happens. For me it was an eye-opener and a positive thing moving forward.”
The hit, which happened near center ice after Bailey received a breakout pass, taught Bailey to keep his head up. Another heads up came last week when NHL Central Scouting put Bailey high on its 2013 draft list. He is ranked ninth among North American skaters in the OHL.
“I’m right on the cusp of first round, second round,” he said. “It’s good to be there.”
The lofty ranking makes scouts watch - the Sabres’ Iouri Khmylev was among those in Erie Insurance Arena on Saturday night - and raises expectations. The 6-foot-3, 190-pound Bailey knows he can’t take nights off if he wants to hear his name called early at the draft in June.
“It makes you want to perform and get even higher till you’re at that No. 1 spot,” Bailey said. “I think it’s more of a motivational thing. I think it’s a good pressure, not a bad pressure.”
After a slow start, which included missing five games with the concussion, Bailey has gained his footing for the Rangers. He had three assists in his previous two games before getting shut out by the Otters. He’s recorded five goals and 10 points in 20 outings.
“I think my game’s been going up every game, which is a positive note for me,” he said.
Bailey, who plays on the third line for prospect-laden Kitchener, ranks 16th in scoring among OHL rookies. He took a roundabout journey to the league and list.
Bailey’s original plan was to play in the United States Hockey League last year, but he instead joined the Long Island Royals. The under-16 midget team won the national championship under coach Pat LaFontaine, the legendary Sabres Hall of Famer.
Bailey was then scheduled to play for Michigan State, but he turned down the scholarship over the summer after visiting Kitchener, which picked him in the seventh round of last year’s draft.
“I sat down and looked at the pros and cons of things,” Bailey said. “I thought from the time that I came [to Kitchener] for the tour that this was the right route for me. It’s all worked out so far.
“I couldn’t be more happy to be in Kitchener and be a Ranger. There’s nothing better than the lifestyle I’m living now, from the coaches to the guys in the locker room to my billet family to my regular family, I think this is the right decision I made.”
It’s all made his absence from the All-American Prospects Game in First Niagara Center hurt a lot less.
“It’s obviously tough watching a game like that knowing you can be a part of it,” said Bailey, who attended the contest. “It was a cool game to see and I met a couple NHL teams there, so there were good things and bad things about it.”