For the fourth player granted exceptional player status in the OHL, the 2014-15 campaign represents — apologies in advance for the terrible pun — the dawn of a brand new Day.
“It’s just experience. Overall, your rookie season you’re 15 instead of 16. But I have three years instead of two until my draft year, so that extra year you kind of get to learn,” the Mississauga Steelheads’ Sean Day explained. “A lot of these guys coming in their rookie years are a little bit worried that they only have a couple of years until they’re getting drafted, so they have to prove something.
“Coming in last year, I think I get to take it a little bit more easy, learn the league a little bit better, and this year jump right into it as a 16-year-old.”
Some have called Day’s performance last year ‘disappointing’ in light of the hype, but Day said he learned a lot in his 60-game debut, wherein he scored six goals and added 10 assists.
“Yeah, I was fine with it. I wasn’t trying to do too much. I think last year was more about trying to learn the defensive zone and [Mississauga coach James] Boyd and I talked about it all the time that last year was just trying to get to learn the league, the rinks, the players, and just try to establish myself in the d-zone and not try to jump up as much,” Day said. “I know this year, he’s letting me have a little bit more freedom with that. In the long run, I think it was a lot better doing that and just settling in.”
The biggest adjustment? The size and speed of his opponents. And at 6’2 and 225 pounds, Day already has copious size — so it was a part of the game he actually enjoyed.
“Last year, you’re 15 playing against guys up to 20, 21-years old. Everyone knows how to play the game. As a 15 year old I think it comes a little bit fast. It took me a good month to get up to the speed of everything,” he said. “I’ve always been one of the bigger guys on the team. I like playing that way, I like playing physical, so I think I liked that aspect of that — a lot bigger guys coming to take a run at me. It was fun being the guy to come and get.”
Entering this season, Day felt his rookie campaign has put him ahead of the curve — especially against his draft year peers who are just entering the league as 16-year-old rookies.
“I was a lot more calm about it. This year I kind of knew everyone in the league. I’m not worried about making any kind of impression, I’m just going to play my game. At the beginning of the year I was able to slow the game down a lot more and use my patience,” he said. “Last year I was trying to speed everything up. I’m learning to use what I have more. I know I don’t have to go out and do everything myself. I can use the people around me and keep things simple.”
It’s working in more ways than one. Last season, Day was a cringe-inducing -35, but this year he’s a more respectable +2 in 16 games. He attributes the change to his teammates and a more concerted focus on playing the game the right way.
“It’s the team play and that I’m a lot more worried about my defensive zone and getting the job done in the d-zone before hopping up and trying to go score a goal,” he said. “The points are coming from that. I have eight points already this year and I had 16 all of last season. I think, with that whole defensive mindset, jumping up and being the fourth guy in is a lot better than trying to lead the rush every time.”
Learning when to jump into the rush and when to hang back isn’t something that you can learn from being told, Day said — it only comes from experience and seeing the errors first-hand.
“I think it’s more of a feel for it. In minor hockey you can kind of do whatever you want and never get yelled at. Last year, every time I jumped up, Boyd would say ‘That wasn’t the right play,’ or take me and show me video,” he said. “This year, I think you just kind of know — you read the play, look around more and scan the situation a lot better. You’re looking to see if you can make it an odd-man rush rather than just go up and try to score.”
With names like Tavares, Ekblad, and McDavid as exceptional players before him, there are a lot of eyes on Day — and even more will be focused on him next year in his draft-eligible year. But it’s an honor he appreciates.
“There’s no pressure really. All three guys that came before me, they’re skilled. They’re a lot better than their age group,” he said. “I think to be named in the same category as those guys is great, but I’ve got to just focus on myself and not worry about what they did.”
Day said he’s happy he made the decision to apply for exceptional player status. His only regret is that one of his mentors isn’t around to see the results.
“There was a lot of talk around [the decision]. One of the guys was Pat Peake, Sr., who worked with the Plymouth Whalers and his son was one of my coaches,” Day explained. “He always said that I could possibly do it, so I tried it out and ended up getting it.
“He passed away shortly thereafter, so he never got to see me drafted, but he’s one of the key guys in my childhood that I look up to.”
At only 16, Day’s already seen a lot of the world — which holds him in good stead for the vagabond lifestyle of a future NHL player. He was born in Belgium and lived for three years in Singapore [“I only remember the building, really.”]. Day owns a well-worn passport.
“I know I was young, but you get that feel of living away and traveling a lot,” he said. “I’ve been in 24 countries, so I know what traveling’s about. I think it’s cool to visit different countries and see what they’re about.”
But no matter where he travels — and even though he’s listed with a Michigan hometown, Day considers himself a Canuck. He holds a Canadian birth certificate and his family has roots in southwestern Ontario.
“I live [in Michigan], but my whole family lives in Stouffville, ON,” he said. “[Home is] either there or Toronto. We’re always up there — we spend our Christmas in Stouffville and Thanksgiving every year, until I joined the OHL. It’s a little different now, but growing up we were always there and I like it there a lot better.”
Day got another global experience at the recent World Under-17 Hockey Challenge in Sarnia, ON. What he learned from welcoming the world is that there’s a global commonality of success.
“Playing against other countries and seeing what their mindset of hockey is about — it’s weird seeing other countries come in and play the exact same style of game,” he said. “You see what your coaches are saying is true — that’s how you’re going to win, by playing that way. It’s a special feeling playing for your country.
“You get to know a lot of great guys, too. Mikey McLeod from our team came in — and I didn’t know a lot of guys in my age group, but he introduced me to a lot of the guys and we’re all buddies now.”
He also feels these type of global tournaments will help prepare him for the OHL post-season.
“It’s just the short-tournament experience. You have to find a way to win in such a short period of time,” he said. “I know these are long seasons, but it’s kind of like a playoff mentality. In a short time you have to win so many games and you don’t get a lot of rest. It’s day-in, day-out battling a new team every day. And I think it’s kind of like a playoff experience.”
After a year in the league, Day is focusing on keeping things simple. Though he’s still tempted to make the flashy play, he’s learned it’s not always the best — or most efficient — thing to do.
“I need to just keep improving on the things I have been improving on — my d-zone and picking my spots in the rush,” he said. “I think just making the more simple play. A lot of times I hold on to the puck a little too long and make the hard play.
“Even if it works out, you always look back and think I could have made the easier play. It’s just the simple things.”
And he still thinks he needs to get bigger. “I want to get a lot stronger,” he said. “I’m a strong kid, but moving up the next year and the year after that — eventually in the NHL if I make it there, you’re playing against men, not teenagers and 20-year-olds, so it’s a different game in the NHL and I think the best conditioning you can be in is playing against them. I just want to be like that.”
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