For the average, North American sports fan, the first Saturday in May is typically reserved for the Kentucky Derby. But this year in Erie, Pennsylvania, 6,500 citizens witnessed Erie Otters forward Nick Betz score just three minutes into Game Six of the OHL Western Conference Finals.
It was a sight to behold, as Betz, a 6’5”, 220-pound power forward, grabbed the front of his jersey, displaying the Otters logo to the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhound’s bench and the screaming masses. While the Greyhounds may not have been thrilled at the display, you have to get to know these Otters in order to understand what that really meant.
“We have a lot of new guys this year, lots of young guys, and throughout the year we came together,” said Erie’s draft-eligible defenseman Travis Dermott. “It’s like hanging out with a bunch of your friends, we don’t have any cliques. Everyone is a family here, you can tell anyone anything and we trust each other with our lives.”
Depending on who you ask, the jersey tug could either be viewed as a belief in his team, a display of confidence, or disrespect towards the opposition. Betz certainly didn’t mean the latter, and the thought process and work that went into that moment came from an offseason of revelation.
He has been subjected to the roller coaster ride that is the NHL Draft for two consecutive seasons, the first in 2013 when Betz appeared on NHL Central Scouting’s preliminary rankings as a fourth-line depth forward for the Otters.
The draft came and went, and Betz was not selected. To make matters worse, he didn’t receive an invite to a prospect camp or any interest from prospective NHL teams.
The next season, Betz felt reinvigorated after learning what the OHL was all about. He suffered a minor injury midway through the season, again played in a bottom-six role, and entered the draft process hopeful that he would hear his name called.
It didn’t happen in 2014, either. He painstakingly sat through all 210 picks, then waited for a phone call, certain that the NHL would come calling.
His phone remained dormant, except for his family, the Otters.
“It was a huge wake-up call for me, I knew that with a lot of guys leaving, I had a chance to play more,” Betz said. “My teammates and coaches kept in touch with me in the offseason, and laid out a plan.”
That plan was filled with repetitions in the gym, a new nutrition program, and an emphasis on setting goals.
“Not getting an invite to an NHL camp made me work harder,” he added.
Hard to argue with that, as the results this season have been staggeringly different.
Over the course of his first three seasons in the league, Betz totaled just 44 points over 171 OHL games. Known as a player that would skate through a wall for his teammates, he was afforded an increase in playing time and a chance to spend most of his shifts alongside one of the dynamic draft-eligible duo of Connor McDavid or Dylan Strome.
The increased role resulted in a season where Betz found the back of the net 22 times, assisting on 32 others, surpassing his career totals in just one season.
“I feel more confident this year, like I have the ability now to do more things with the puck,” Betz replied while assessing his season. “I’ve shot the puck more often, and feel a lot stronger out there, so it definitely felt good.”
To say that the “Elite Effect,” a thought process that a player is the product of those around him, didn’t play some factor would be negligent. However, Betz partly manufactured his own success and took advantage of the trust placed in him by not only the coaching staff, but his Otters family.
One player, in particular, spent most of the year centering Betz and helped contribute to his resurgence in the OHL.
“I feel like you know what you are going to get playing with him,” Betz suggested coyly in reference to the future 2015 first overall pick, Connor McDavid. “Until he gets on the ice, though, he surprises you with something else every night. My linemates are unbelievable, so I give full credit to them.”
Not unlike many of the give-and-go’s Erie manufactured on the ice this season, McDavid was quick to give the credit right back.
“He opens up a lot of space for us, and works very well down low. He’s incredible to play with,” McDavid replied. “He worked hard to get where he is and deserves the credit he is getting.”
That’s certainly high praise and a nice reference to place on his expanding hockey resume.
Betz’s big frame has been put to use this season, as the rangy forward has improved significantly with the puck, but it’s his focus on his responsibilities away from it that have improved the most. He has created turnovers this season by simply finishing checks or tracking back against the boards, which resulted in one game-winning playoff goal against the London Knights and two others where Betz opened the scoring against Sault Ste. Marie.
He also hasn’t been afraid to mix things up and protect his teammates when called on to do so, which might be a bit of foreshadowing into the type of game he will need to generate if the NHL is going to finally come calling.
While it isn’t always a precursor to draft success, being recognized by NHL Central Scouting is a positive step towards a selection. To that point, Betz was listed as a player to watch at the beginning of the year, reached #129 on the charts in January, and was removed from it completely in their final version.
“I’m not focused on the rankings, I really just want to help us win a championship,” Betz said of the possibility of finally getting drafted or receiving a camp invitation.
The two might go hand-in-hand, just like that jersey tug Betz showed off before the Otters advanced to the OHL Championship Series.
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