OAKVILLE, Ont. — Quinton Byfield was eager to get going.
The hulking, highly-touted 17-year-old forward with soft hands and speed to burn instead found himself staring out a window at the airport in Sudbury, Ont.
A seven-hour weather delay turned into a flight cancellation and a long drive south, forcing him to miss the first day of Canada’s selection camp ahead of the 2020 world junior hockey championship.
“Just listening to music … hoping the plane would take off,” Byfield said Tuesday of how he passed the time waiting for a flight that never left the tarmac. “It was getting lonely.”
Finally in the fold with his prospective teammates, a lot is expected this week from the presumptive No. 2 pick at June’s NHL draft.
A star centre for the Sudbury Wolves, the six-foot-four, 215-pound Byfield sits second in Ontario Hockey League scoring with 57 points (22 goals, 35 assists) in 30 games this season as one of the biggest stories — no pun intended — in junior through the first three months of the 2019-20 campaign.
“He works extremely hard,” Hockey Canada head scout Brad McEwen said. “It’s a really intriguing package.”
Byfield is doing his best to block out the draft noise and hype as he looks to force his way onto the Canadian roster for the event that runs Dec. 26 to Jan. 5 in the Czech Republic.
“I’d take any role to play for my country,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity even just to get invited to camp.”
Mark Hunter, general manager of the OHL’s London Knights and part of Canada’s brain trust for the 2020 tournament, has seen plenty of Byfield the last two seasons.
“He’s got to play a power forward style, be up and down the ice and finish his checks and play a hard game,” said the former assistant GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs. “He’s got great stick skills and puck skills. He’s a big body that can get to the net, (where) some of the smaller players have a harder time.”
Selected with the No. 1 pick by Sudbury in 2018 OHL draft, Byfield had 61 points as a 16-year-old and has exploded this season, including five goals and six assists in his last four games with the Wolves.
“He’s like Joe Thornton was at the same age,” North Bay Battalion head coach Stan Butler said in a recent phone interview. “He can pretty much do everything. I don’t see a whole lot of flaws in his game, and I’ve been coaching junior hockey for 25 years.
“He’s a pretty special player.”
Flint Firebirds centre Ty Dellandrea has seen up close how Byfield can take over games in the OHL.
“He’s an ox,” said Dellandrea, a 2018 first-round pick of the Dallas Stars also looking to earn a place on the Canadian team. “It’s hard to play a guy that’s so tall and can use his body so well, but can (also) finish.
“He’s got it all going for him.”
Peterborough Petes goalie Hunter Jones said that even at six foot four, Byfield is adept and finding soft areas on the ice before pouncing.
“He kind of gets lost in the offensive zone and somehow gets the puck and then it’s in the back of the net,” said Jones, a 2019 second-round pick of the Minnesota Wild. “He’s here for a reason and we’re very fortunate to have him.”
One of three camp attendees out of 31 born in 2002, Byfield is also one of eight first-time NHL draft hopefuls vying for spots at a tournament often largely reserved for 19 year olds.
That means wearing a full face shield, but unlike his underage counterparts, Byfield is sporting a plastic “fish bowl” rather than a metal cage.
“It gets a little foggy, a little hot in there,” Byfield said with a grin. “But I wore that all through my minor hockey so I’m kind of used to it.”
Rimouski Oceanic winger Alexis Lafreniere, who leads the Canadian Hockey League with 70 points in 32 games and is expected to go No. 1 in June, has yet to take the ice this week in Oakville as he rests up before the tournament, but Byfield said he’s chatted briefly with his QMJHL counterpart.
The Newmarket, Ont., native also isn’t ready to give up the top slot in the NHL draft quite yet.
“It’s incredible, even just getting my name mentioned,” said Byfield, who doesn’t turn 18 until August. “I just try and play my best and hopefully my name gets called there.”
Lafreniere is also motivation for Byfield in another sense after he made Canada’s roster last year at 17 as the 13th forward in Vancouver and Victoria — the hosts finished a disappointing sixth — before pushing his way up the lineup.
But with exhibition games against a team of university all-stars set for Wednesday and Thursday before final cuts, the clock is ticking to make an impression.
“I want to follow in (Lafreniere’s) footsteps,” Byfield said. “Hopefully I can work my way on the team.
“I’ll take any spot.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 10, 2019.
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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press