Burlington's Shane Wright poised to take next step on long road at Thursday's NHL draft
18-year-old playmaking centre projected to be top pick at Bell Centre in Montreal
Shane Wright was doing his best to stay in shape.
He also figured it was time to branch out in the face of so much downtime.
As the COVID-19 pandemic chipped away and eventually stole his entire 2020-21 season, the teenage hockey star was home in Burlington, Ont., working on his strength, speed and skating — at least as much as was allowed against the backdrop of strict health and safety restrictions.
Between those long, lonely workouts sessions, Wright also picked up a hobby in the family's two-car garage.
"He would be in there almost every single day hitting golf balls," said Shane's dad, Simon Wright. "It's a frustrating game … it was irritating him. We actually set up a net. It was like -20 C outside. He was literally trying to learn and master golf during the pandemic at the same time as trying to keep fit.
"He's actually got quite good ... kicks my butt, anyway."
A gifted, playmaking centre, Shane Wright has been an overachiever — and demanding of both himself and others — since first being introduced to sports.
Even at age three on community fields.
"He'd have utter tantrums when people didn't know the rules or the other kids didn't play properly," Tanya Wright, Shane's mom, said with a laugh in an interview with her husband for The Canadian Press. "I'd have to literally haul him off and plunk him down on the grass for a timeout.
"It was actually really embarrassing."
That drive, that passion, that desire might have rubbed some the wrong way in Shane Wright's early years.
It's also helped propel the Kingston Frontenacs forward to the cusp of having his name called early, and quite possibly first, inside the Bell Centre on Thursday when NHL teams begin making selections at the league's first in-person draft since 2019.
The process, however, hasn't been a straight line.
WATCH | Wright ready for leap to NHL:
A phenom in arenas across the Greater Toronto Area growing up, Wright was granted exceptional status to play in the Ontario Hockey League a year early at age 15 — the short list of past exemptions includes Connor McDavid and John Tavares — ahead of a 2019-20 campaign that would eventually be cut short by the pandemic.
He then didn't get to play at all the next season as the OHL was unable to get its 2020-21 schedule off the ground. Some of the Canadian Hockey League's top talent looked to join teams in Europe or the U.S. for game action, but Wright stayed put.
"We were like, 'Do we send him somewhere?"' Simon Wright recalled. "But at the same time you were also believing that something was going to get going [in the OHL].
"By January  we knew there was no hope. We positioned it as an opportunity to grow in other areas."
Apart from growing in the gym and widening his on-ice skill sets, Shane Wright made an effort to pivot himself away from the rink towards other interests, including golf.
"Definitely tough last year not being able to play," he said. "I really tried to focus on things to take my mind off hockey.
"That was something I really took to heart … just find those few moments."
Wright, now 18, also picked up a guitar and now sends family members short video clips of songs he's learned.
"I'm working on hockey all the time," continued the six-foot, 199-pound Wright. "But it's also really important to find those things that take your mind off hockey and get you away from the game."
Slow start to season
His mind returned to competition this past fall when the OHL got back up and running, but a slow start led to questions about Wright's status as the consensus No. 1 pick in 2022.
"It was hard, there's no question," said Tanya Wright, who teaches high school. "As parents, we probably felt [the stress] earlier than Shane because you always want the best for your kid. And then eventually he starts feeling it."
Added Simon Wright: "He hadn't forgotten how to play the game."
Shane would steady the ship and make Canada's team at the world junior hockey championship — an event abruptly shuttered and pushed to August because of rising coronavirus cases — but then tested positive for COVID-19 once he got back to Kingston.
"Definitely some disappointments," Wright said. "You have to find the positives from those experiences."
He finished this past season with 35 goals and 73 assists for 108 points in 74 regular-season and playoff games with the Frontenacs.
"He had to overcome a lot," said Simon Wright, an account manager in the business world. "He just found a way to say, 'Screw this. Screw that. I'm going to get this thing done."'
Wright, Slafkovsky and Cooley top the NHL Central Scouting list
Wright remains the top-ranked North American skater available at the draft, according to NHL Central Scouting.
There's no guarantee, however, the Montreal Canadiens call his name when they make the top pick in their home rink, with Slovak winger Juraj Slafkovsky, a star at the 2022 Olympics, and U.S. National Team Development Program centre Logan Cooley also in the conversation.
"I'm still the player I am," said Wright, who had 14 points in five contests to help Canada win gold at the under-18 worlds last spring. "Just because I had a year off playing games doesn't mean I'm not skating, doesn't mean I'm getting worse."
WATCH | Wright says he would love to be a Canadien:
This past season was, however, a massive change for the family. It felt like every game, every shift was being dissected and analyzed on social media.
That's because they probably were.
"I deleted Twitter," Simon Wright said. "It's out of control."
"I wasn't prepared," Tanya added. "If every kid was scouted to the same degree as Shane, you could pick apart any player.
"That was a real eye-opener."
But they were also impressed how their son handled the spotlight.
Tanya recalled the aftermath of a Kingston loss where Shane was still the centre of attention from autograph-seeking fans.
"We were grumpy," she said. "I mentioned, 'You know, he hasn't spent any time with his family.' And Shane's like, 'Mom, it's OK. I got this.'
"You're like, 'Wow, he's figured out what he can handle."'
Helping young players
His dad then told a story of a coach from Shane's old minor hockey program asking if he would FaceTime a team of youngsters to talk about adversity the morning of one of Kingston's playoff games this spring.
It would have been easy to brush off the request, but he was more than happy to help.
"Incredible," Simon Wright said. "Sacrificing his own preparation — his get-ready time for a big game — to support kids because he's been through a lot.
"And if he can help them, that's something special."
The Wrights are convinced the rocky road Shane has faced — mostly since the start of the pandemic — is going to serve him well moving forward.
He's the only player to encounter this level of attention under these unique circumstances.
"I don't want to say things can't get worse," Simon Wright explained. "But he's experienced just about everything you could imagine with respect to adversity around what he's been challenged with in this game."
Shane Wright said the biggest lesson of his journey is to never take anything for granted.
Not a game. Not a shift.
"You never know when something's going to get taken away," he said. "Take advantage of every second of it. Soak it all in, enjoy yourself.
"Let the rest take care of itself."
The next chapter of his story — one with plenty of ups and downs to date — is almost set to begin.