By: Mitchell Fox
This is the second part of a Steelheads season wrap-up. You can check out my own season takeaways article here.
I’ve already done my own takeaways for the Mississauga Steelheads’ 2022-23 Ontario Hockey League (OHL) season, but I figured we could do better than just giving my perspective as a writer. So, I went to those who were closest to the action: the players themselves.
On April 10, the day after the Steelheads’ game six loss to the North Bay Battalion, the team held their player exit meetings. I got to talk to a few players as they signed jerseys and waited for their meetings.
Here are some takeaways from the 2022-23 season, in the words of James Hardie, Kasper Larsen, Chas Sharpe, Kai Schwindt, Adam Zidlicky and Dylan Gordon.
Some answers have been edited slightly for clarity.
The loss – painful, but promising:
The Steelheads lost in the first round of the OHL Playoffs to the North Bay Battalion on April 9. Though lopsided losses in games one and five tell a dismal story, the series was closer than many would have expected.
When you ask the players, there is a sense of disappointment in not being able to pull off the upset they had their eyes set on, but there is a sense of pride too.
Chas Sharpe: “It still hurts a little bit, obviously. It's never fun losing, especially in the playoffs. [But] it was a hard-fought series. I thought we really had a chance there.”
Kasper Larsen: “That was a tough loss. A tough bounce, I would say. We hit the post with, I don't know, 10 seconds left. So it could have gone both ways. But we battled the whole way and I'm proud of this team.”
Adam Zidlicky: “I mean, it's tough, but we battled hard. Unfortunately, we didn't get the win, but [I am] pretty proud of the way we played and proud of the team.”
Some players also gave their worthy opponents some credit.
Kai Schwindt: “Obviously it's not good to end the season like that. But you know what, I think we put up a great fight against North Bay. They're a great team. And I'm really happy with what this group accomplished this year. I'm obviously gonna miss all my brothers, but that's how hockey goes.
Dylan Gordon: “I think we had a good pushback in the third period. We definitely kept up with the Battalion. But unfortunately, we didn't get that last goal. They have a great goaltender.
Best goalie in the OHL, it's pretty tough to go against, to see all his stats and stuff. But we still gotta push through that. Obviously, we won a couple of games. That was really exciting. It just sucks to [face them].”
Zidlicky also touched on how it felt to be wrapping up the season the next day. After signing some merchandise and meeting with coaches, the Czech forward was off to get ready to fly to Prague for the U18 World Championship team’s training camp.
“Super special to give back to our fans… who support us through it all. It's pretty sad, though, to go back,” Zidlicky said.
How close they came – one post:
In the end, the Steelheads came just short of a comeback in game six, losing 5-4 despite being down 5-1 at one point in the game. In that game and in the series, there was a sense of being right in the series and of being able to bounce back when they needed to.
Sharpe: “It felt like we almost won the series after each game. And the energy that we were bringing, I thought we were just gonna carry right through the series.”
Larsen: “I feel like we did everything we could. We [fought] the whole way. That shows a lot, right? We were going at it and we [fought] till the last second.”
Sharpe said that fight to the end of each game and the series was reflective of the team’s spirit.
“It shows the will in that room and how everybody's buying in and everybody really wants to win and compete every night,” he said. “We're one post away from tying that game, who knows what happens from there?”
That one post was the big story of the game for many of the players, but none more so than James Hardie. The Steelheads’ co-captain and multi-record holder took a shot from outside the slot with just 10 seconds left in a one-goal game and hit the iron.
James Hardie: “We put up a good fight against North Bay. They're a strong team, a lot of [good] players on that team. You know, it came down right to the end of the game yesterday.”
“I got the puck, and I stepped out and I shot it and hit the post. Probably the worst post ever in my life. But that's what happens. Sometimes it's hockey and [you] just kind of move on.”
Hardie’s game and series should by no means be defined by that post either. He also scored in the game, and led the team with eight points in six games in the playoffs.
“[It is] obviously not the ending you want, but to score in my last game, that's pretty special, considering I scored my first ever game as well. So it's pretty special that way,” Hardie said.
The team they had this year:
One of the things that the players made evident was that there was a sense of camaraderie and passion around the team, especially after the trade deadline. New faces, rookies, established veterans and everyone in between united as the team battled their way to the end.
Larsen: “We were like playing for each other. We were fighting just working our asses off… I love the boys. I don't know, I feel like we have a special group here. And they are definitely going to be a special next year too. It's a really good team.
Zidicky: “I was super excited when I heard that I got traded to Missy. And when I came over, it was obviously awesome. And getting to know all the guys and we get close with them. It was pretty special. I think we're a very special team and a great group of guys. And we have a young team, so we'll see what we can do in the future.”
Hardie: “It's hard seeing your really good friends get traded. But you know, we brought in some high-end really good young players and they came in they gelled right away with all of us.
I think it kind of starts with our coaching staff, they're really welcoming to everyone that comes in. And our team, we're really nice group. We like to have fun, [but] it gets serious on the ice. We're an easy group to get along with… it's easy to come into this building and be friends.”
For Hardie and Larsen, as well as fellow overage player Charlie Callaghan, the end of the season meant the end of their OHL careers. After five years for Hardie and Callaghan and two for Larsen, they are set to take their talents elsewhere. Their teammates had plenty to say about the players that had helped lead the franchise for much of that time.
Sharpe: [They are] three of my best friends. I'm gonna miss them as hockey players, but mostly as people. Coming into the rink every day, [they] just put smiles on your face. You know, when I came into the league, it was Charlie and James's second year, so I've been here every year with them. So it's gonna be weird not seeing those faces.
Zidlicky: “It's pretty sad, obviously, to see a couple of guys go and especially our [overagers]. I think we're such a tight group and such a tight team, so it's always tough.
“All three of them, they're such good leaders and such good guys off the ice and great players on the ice. So kind of looking up to them and having them by our sides all the time, it has been awesome.”
Schwindt: “Obviously, [I am not going] to see James and Chucky and Kasper in the room for a little bit. To send them off is tough. They're good people. I'm gonna miss them very much. But I'm sure we'll all keep in contact. We're all pretty close, so it'll be fun.
“They're all tremendous hockey players, tremendous people. We're all gonna miss them very much... I consider them my brothers. I love 'em a lot. So I wish them nothing but the best in their hockey careers.”
The overagers themselves could not help but be reflective.
Larsen: “It's tough. Because I love this team. I love being around this team. And these guys. So it was really hard. But yeah, I'm happy that I came over [to Mississauga from Denmark]. I've enjoyed my time here.”
For Hardie, it was an undeniably difficult time for Hardie after five years of tremendous growth into becoming “Mr. Steelhead” (credit to radio voice Zach Bodenstein for that one). He also spoke about getting to walk out of locker clean up day with a blue Steelheads jersey with a C on it.
Hardie: “It's obviously a sad day. Being here for five years, it's the last time I'm actually meeting here. But, you know, I had a great year, and I have great memories that I've had over the five years. But it's obviously a little sad.
“Especially being here for this long, [the fact] I get a jersey with the C that I get to put in my house and have the rest of my life is pretty special.”
Hardie also set a number of franchise records while in Mississauga, including in all-time goals and points. He said those records are meant to be broken eventually, but it feels great to have them for a little while at least.
“It's amazing,” he said. “As a 16 year old, you never really expect that. You just want to come in and do your best, so to leave here with some records is pretty cool.”
What to look forward to:
Though the initial feelings after a loss are predictably negative, there was an undeniable sense of promise for the future among media and players alike. With some players exiting the picture, others will enter it or take on more prominent roles within it.
Sharpe: “We got a lot of young kids at the deadline and they brought energy every night. Us older guys, we lead the way, but we also thrive off their energy that they bring each night. It's really fun to see, and it's gonna be a really exciting few years here in Mississauga.
“I think fans, players, parents, they can all see what, what type of team we're building here. And it's really exciting. Like, there's a lot of winning, winning in the future here… I think everybody who is watching should be really excited.”
Gordon: “We’ve got a great young team to look forward to next year. So I think [the way they fought in the playoffs] is a great mark for our future.
“I think, you know, all the young guys, we're going to bond together. And we're going to be a force to be reckoned with coming up.”
Hardie: “This team's got a really bright future ahead of them for sure… Next year is gonna be really great for this team... I'm really excited for this organization.
“I think they're gonna win a championship here one day.”
Hardie could not help but point out one young player that made quite a mark in the playoffs (enough to earn a spot on Canada’s U18 Worlds team at 16 years old).
“Porter Martone, the kid's a great hockey player. You know, I wouldn't be surprised if he ends up breaking all my records one day,” the co-captain said.
In a time of reflection, it seemed relevant to ask some players for their favourite memories, this year or over the course of their time as Steelheads. There was a quite a variety in responses.
Sharpe: “I don't know if there's a standout moment, I think it just kept getting more and more exciting with the new faces coming in. And just the team we're building.
“Just talking about winning now, it's just getting me excited.”
Larsen – Could not pick a favourite moment over five years:
“I feel like I enjoy like every second, so everything's just perfect. I love it.”
Larsen – This season: - April 2, 2023 - Game two vs North Bay. The team’s first win in the playoffs showed they were invested in not just battling, but winning.
“The first game we won in North Bay… that was probably one of the best moments I've had,”
Larsen said. “We were like coming in like, ‘We could beat these guys,’ and we beat them and it was like, yes.”
Schwindt: Jan. 13, 2023 - 3-2 W vs Niagara - James Hardie sets franchise records for all-time goals and points with a goal against the Niagara IceDogs.
“I think probably seeing James break the record for all time goalscoring. Just seeing the whole team around him. I mean, I grew up coming to these games when my brother was on this team, so I saw James right when he was 16. When he broke that record, I feel like it just kind of sank in for me just how special moments can be on the ice. That was a big one for me.”
Gordon: Jan. 6, 2023 - 5-1 W vs Barrie - New additions Jack Van Volsen, Angus MacDonell and Justin DeZoete all scored their first goals as Steelheads in their first games. Porter Martone also had an assist, and Adam Zidlicky had just scored his first two goals the previous game.
“I think when the young guys came to the team and first game, no practice, we all really had something to show for that first win. A lot of them had their first goal in their first game. So I think that showed some great stuff for the future.”
The question on the top of a lot of minds this time of year has to be “what’s next?” For the organization, the next big event is the OHL draft on April 21 and 22, followed by an offseason to figure out what next year’s team will look like. For each player, this means taking a few weeks off from hockey, then starting to train for next year.
Some, however, have more hockey to play.
For Hardie, the end of the season means moving on to the next stage in his life and hockey career. Though he did not know what that would look like when I spoke to him, it was announced just the next day that he had signed a contract with the Cincinatti Cyclones of the East Coast Hockey League (ECHL).
There has been little news of yet as to where Larsen and Callaghan will be headed, but it is very early in the offseason. Larsen did say that he would be taking a few weeks off, then might go to camp for the Danish national team to play at the World Championships in May.
Another Steelhead has gotten an opportunity to play professional hockey. On April 14, Kai Schwindt was called up by the Charlotte Checkers of the American Hockey League for their playoff run. He has yet to play a game yet, but one can guess he is there to soak in a professional environment before taking his skills to Florida Panthers training camp in the fall (he was signed to an Entry Level Contract by the Panthers after training camp last September).
Finally, three Steelheads are displaying their talents on the world stage right now at the Under-18 World Championship in Switzerland. Porter Martone and Angus MacDonell both made Team Canada, while Adam Zidlicky is playing for Czechia.
In Canada’s 8-0 victory over Germany today, MacDonell had an assist, while Martone had a goal and two assists.
Zidlicky said he was looking forward to playing for his national team.
“It's always nice to represent my country and I'm super excited,” he said. “I think we have a good group of guys, so we'll see [how well Czechia does].”
Zidlicky and Angus MacDonell are also eligible for this year’s NHL Draft and have been listed on NHL Central Scouting’s list of North American skaters. In the latest edition, MacDonell had moved up 30 spots since January to 142nd.
For now, that is all. There are a lot of reasons to stay tuned to this team over the offseason and into next year, including the team’s play and so much more both on and off the ice. The Intermission Sports will have you covered for all of it.