It was already a banner day for Tillsonburg’s Brandon Balazs when Saginaw Spirit GM Dave Drinkill called him on April 4.
Just a few moments earlier, Drinkill had selected Balazs 198th overall in the Ontario Hockey League Priority Selection.
Balazs, 16, had begun the morning sitting in the family room watching the OHL draft on TV.
“My family started watching it from the start… sort of watching each name go by. I was still waking up a little bit, just doing my thing.”
The 10th round turned out to be ‘the one’ for Balazs.
“I was in the kitchen. My dad saw it on TV, got up, came in and said ‘congratulations.’ That’s when I knew I got drafted. It was pretty exciting – as soon as it happened my phone was dinging, dinging, dinging. It was pretty cool having my family come by in a car line, honking. That was pretty cool they set that up for me. The support for me was pretty awesome.”
One of five Brantford AAA minor midget players drafted, Balazs went ‘about where he expected’ in the 15-round draft, which annually sees 300 players selected. He had been interviewed by OHL teams before the draft, including Saginaw, towards the end of the 99ers season, so he knew he was on their scouting lists.
“I thought that’s where I was meant to be, in that area,” he said, but admitted he didn’t know exactly which team would take him.
“It was basically wide open, I wasn’t thinking about any one team. I was just looking at it, waiting…”
Then came the announcement, quickly posted on the Saginaw’s social media (Twitter and Instagram), and Drinkill’s call.
“He called and said, ‘Congratulations, I’m looking forward to meeting you.’ He said they had me picked for that area and didn’t know if they were going to get me. And they said it worked out.”
Led by Cole Perfetti, a highly touted 2020 NHL prospect, Saginaw finished the abbreviated 2019-20 OHL season second in the Western Conference, five points behind division leader London Knights, tied with Kitchener Rangers.
Saginaw had finished its season with five rookies (one had been traded mid-season), including three from the 2019 draft, ranging from 30th overall to 88th overall. As a group, the rookies averaged 43 games.
“They usually pick at least one 16-year-old, but I’m not really sure how many they will pick (for the 2020-21 roster).”
Balazs, who started his minor hockey in Tillsonburg before switching to the Brantford AAA system for minor peewee, played five years with the 99ers and had a stellar 2019-20 minor midget (U16) season. The team’s top goal scorer had 23 goals and 12 assists in 32 games and 50 PIM. He racked up another 14 points in 11 Alliance League playoff games.
“I feel like I improved quite a bit after last year. It was a heavy workout summer for me and I did a lot of power skating.”
The extra work paid off – Balazs and the mid-pack 99ers had a solid season.
“Our team developed quite a bit actually – as a team and individually. Everyone on the team. It was one to remember, for sure. Just a good group of guys and I wouldn’t have been able to do it without them.”
The 99ers minor midgets, which included Tillsonburg players Tyler Bouck, Hayden McLean and OHL pick Beau Jelsma, had five players selected in the OHL draft including Ingersoll’s Gavin Bryant, Simcoe’s Ryan Vannetten, and Brantford’s Luke Bibby.
“We played Hamilton to start in the playoffs and we lost to them in Game 5,” said Balazs. “Then we down to the consolation round and swept Chatham and London. Then we played Windsor and lost to them.”
Balazs did not talk to many scouts early in the season, but knew they were ‘out there.’
“There’s always pressure – they’re watching you and they want someone who will fill a spot on their team. They’re trying to put the best guy in there and you’ve got to work hard against everyone else.”
A Grade 10 student at Glendale High School, Balazs finished the school season with the Gemini hockey team. Second-place Tillsonburg came from behind to upset first-place – and undefeated in the regular season – IDCI 2-1 in a TVRA South East best-of-three championship series after Ingersoll had taken the opener. Balazs scored a hat trick in a pivotal 4-1 Game 2 victory on home ice, forcing a third-and-deciding game back in Ingersoll.
Both goalies – Bouck for Glendale and Ingersoll’s Seth Clark – had been teammates on the Brantford AAA minor midgets.
“I didn’t start playing (high school hockey) until the AAA season was over – we got out of playoffs,” said Balazs. “Just for more hockey, and so I could get more ice time. And it’s enjoyable having Derek (Partlo) as a coach. He teaches you a lot out there, even in just that little bit of time.”
The Gemini advanced to WOSSAA championships in London where they scored a thrilling 4-3 come-from-behind semifinal win over London South. St. Thomas Aquinas Flames triumphed in the WOSSAA gold medal game shutting out Glendale 3-0 (including an empty-net goal).
Balazs, who was listed on the Saginaw website as 5’8″ 155 pounds (but is a bit taller than that), said OHL players are basically on their own until training camps begin.
“We still have a camp to go to and tryouts… and I want to go in there and show them what I have, what I have to give. I just want to push myself, work as hard as I can – and try to make the team.
“You just have to do your own thing. I have a gym at home, so I just work out here. My dad bought me a lot of stuff so I just do that. If the gyms open back up, I’ll go work out with Luke VanMoerkerke, at the AFT (Athlete Farm Training). He’s been a big part of my hockey, too. He’s pushed me and made me stronger.”