Some junior hockey leagues are certainly held in higher regard than others and as such, gain more attraction from fans, journalists, and scouts alike. The idea of playing at the highest level for your age group and getting noticed by scouts is great in theory but it doesn’t always work out that way. When a young player decides to take the OHL route, they have to be ready for it. As a 16-17 year old kid, obviously their goal is to make it to the pros but it is important to be smart about how you get there. Cole O’Hara didn’t just jump at the first chance he was given. He thought about what would be the best move for him and his career, not what was going to get him drafted faster.
After a great bantam year in 2017-2018 with the Toronto Jr. Canadiens in which the speedy winger helped his team win the OHL Cup, O’Hara’s skill and hard work gathered some attention leading up to the draft which led to the realization that maybe this hockey thing could lead somewhere.
As teams began to take notice of the Toronto Jr. Canadiens forward, his hard work was rewarded when the Hamilton Bulldogs called his name in the 10th round, 198th overall at the 2018 OHL Priority Selection Draft. “You're just so young it's a whole different experience. You're kind of at a young age where a team drafts you and you just don’t know what to expect, you're just excited for the future” O’Hara said.
The following year after the Bulldogs selected the Richmond Hill native, O’Hara was given the opportunity to make the jump to major junior. “My following year I could’ve gone there (Hamilton), but I talked to a lot of people and the NCAA route kind of seemed like the best fit for me instead of going into the OHL at such a young age and not as mature.”
While O’Hara may not have felt that he was mature enough to play in the OHL, it takes a great deal of maturity and self awareness to recognize where you are mentally and your preparedness to take that next step.
In his first season playing junior A in the OJHL, O’Hara wasted no time making a good first impression. Suiting up in his rookie season with the North York Rangers, O’Hara scored 11 goals and added 31 assists for 42 points in 52 games making him his teams second highest scoring forward. He was subsequently named to the OJHL Second Team All Prospect. His rookie debut in the OJHL caught the attention of USHL scouts as the Tri City Storm went on to draft O’Hara in the 10th round, 142nd overall at the 2019 USHL Entry Draft.
O’Hara took things to the next level in his second go-about at Junior A in 2019-2020. His 21 goals and 43 assists (64 points) in 51 games tied for the lead in Rangers scoring. O’Hara was named to the OJHL First Team All-Prospect and went on to be one of the six names to win the OHA Top Prospects Award.
On February 21st, 2019, O’Hara took to Twitter to announce that he had committed to play NCAA hockey for UMass. By committing to play NCAA hockey and forgo his OHL eligibility, O’Hara was taking into account more than just his development as a hockey player. “With the OHL you get that Ontario school education but with NCAA you get to play hockey at the same time at a higher level then the Ontario schools and you also get the education” O’Hara said.
In his first year of NHL Draft eligibility O’Hara’s point totals and accolades were not enough to get his name on the board during the 2020 NHL Entry Draft. Like every other 18-year old hockey player, getting drafted was obviously the goal for the right winger, but the result of the draft is not the end all and be all conclusion.
Playing in the OJHL, O’Hara knew that he may not have as many eyes on him right away as he would have in the OHL but it was the right path in the long run for his development. “I think maybe I didn’t have as many eyes on me but I think you know going into junior and being in my second year in junior on that team I think it gave me a more mature role of playing multiple positions within the game with playing on the power play, lots of 5v5, lots of pk (time), so you know I think it gave me more eyes with it being my second year and my first year of NHL draft eligibility” the former Rangers forward added.
Going undrafted in his first year may not have been the result he was hoping for but it is not something that has deterred him in any way. In fact, it had the opposite effect on him. “Whether your name is called or not, it's just the way you respond with it after” O’Hara said. “It’s just something that you put in the back of your head and it makes you a lot more motivated. You see these guys get drafted and it kind of gives you something to work towards and so I think it's just something that is an obstacle and you just use it as motivation”.
Following the 2020 NHL Draft, O’Hara planned to play at home in Ontario before moving to UMass next year but Covid-19 altered his plans. “Once I realized Ontario wasn’t going to be having a season and coming down to the USHL would be the best fit for me, I think that's when I made the decision” O’Hara said. “Especially not being drafted, playing in a better league will obviously give you a better chance of that becoming a reality in your second year” he added.
O’Hara moved to Nebraska to play for the Tri City Storm earlier this year. The jump from Junior A to the USHL is “definitely a lot different from the OJHL'' according to the Storm's newest forward. “It’s a lot faster, a lot stronger, its just a much faster pace. I think it took me a little bit of time to adjust but once I've adjusted I've become more confident with the puck and can make plays. I’ve kind of just stuck to the process and now I'm feeling confident”.
Making the jump to the next level has proven to O’Hara that taking the long route to develop was the best decision for him. The longer development path process of the NCAA route is what drove him to commit to UMass in the first place and it’s a decision that he is in no way the first Ontarian to come across. Many young hockey players are too focused on being drafted right away and playing at the highest level as fast as you can but Cole O’Hara is proving that players should focus on what is best for their own development, not what those around you are doing.
“Being from Toronto you see a lot of guys go to the OHL because you grow up and go to these games and it seems like that's what you want to do but for me I think it's just something where my process just took a little bit longer” O’Hara explained. “I needed to get stronger and the NCAA allows that. You go into that higher level of hockey much later instead of going to the OHL where you're playing against those faster and stronger kids right away but going to the NCAA allows you to work on your game and when you're going to college you're kind of at your peak and your best point”.