Dane Fox and Mitch Holmberg may be completing their junior hockey careers on opposite sides of North America, but they have a lot in common.
Both are 20 years old, were raised on farms, can score goals in bushels and, after going undrafted in the NHL, love to defy their critics.
Fox, who plays centre for the Erie Otters (34-7-2-0) — the top team in the Ontario Hockey League —has become the first player in the league to score 50 goals this season.
Holmberg, a winger with the Spokane Chiefs (28-12-3) leads the Western Hockey League in scoring.
“Nobody wants to go through that,” Fox said of being undrafted. “But at the same time, I use it as a positive motivation type of thing a and I’ve tried my best to do that.”
Fox, a Thamesville, Ont., native who grew up on a soybean farm, has already cashed in on his success by signing a three-year, entry-level contract with the Vancouver Canucks, who chose to keep him with Erie rather than putting him in the minors.
“It takes a bit of pressure off,” said Fox, who has 51 goals and 30 assists in 43 games. “Now, I know that there’s just one team focusing on and watching me. Now, I know I can go out and play and not grip my stick so tight. But I love knowing that Vancouver showed as much interest as they did.”
The relief from the mid-season signing is a welcome change from the ordeals that he faced on his draft days.
“I waited seven hours for my name to be called — twice — and it didn’t happen,” said Fox, who attended the draft his first year of eligibility and stayed home the next one.
Canucks executive Stan Smyl, who scouted Fox in person this season and watched him on video in 2012-13, said one reason for signing him early was to avoid a possible bidding war with other teams.
“He’s a guy that, around the net, can finish, and the other part to his game that sticks out a lot is his compete level,” said Smyl. “He’s a hard guy to play against.”
Fox’s 50 goals were the second-fastest in OHL history, after Pat Peake of the Detroit Junior Red Wings scored an OHL-record 50 in 33 games in 1992-93. The Erie sniper cracked the 50-goal barrier on Sunday by posting his fourth hat trick of the season, all of which have come in the past 17 games.
Smyl said offensive players often “cheat” and shy away from heavy traffic in front of the net. But Fox is willing to go to the “dirty areas.”
“He’s a marked man right now in that league,” said Smyl. “But he stands up to whatever abuse is there, and he dishes it out just as much as he takes it.”
Smyl said Fox is a good all-round player, and his scoring ability is “something you can’t teach nowadays.” However, his draft hopes were hampered by off-ice issues.
“There were some things in his past, when he was younger,” said Smyl. “He got into a little bit of trouble and I think that affected (his draft chances.)”
Late in the 2010-11 season, Fox’s former club, the London Knights suspended him for the final three games of the regular season for undisclosed reasons, but brought him back in the playoffs. He missed the start of the 2011-12 season for undisclosed personal reasons and was traded to Erie in January 2012.
But Smyl said Fox has learned from his errors and been “a real role model” with the Otters.
Meanwhile, Holmberg, a Daysland, Alta., native listed at five-foot-10 and 175 pounds, is hoping to help Spokane (26-13-2-2) contend for a WHL title as he delights in defying naysayers who questioned his size and compete level.
“If there was another draft (eligibility year), I’m sure I might have had a chance,” he said. “But, right now, I’m just trying to prove everybody wrong.”
With a career-high 42 goals and 42 assists in 43 games, Holmberg, who lived on a grain farm in Daysland until he was 12 before his family moved to Sherwood Park, Alta., is averaging almost two points per game. He has already surpassed the 80 points that he accumulated in 66 games in 2012-13.
Holmberg suggested his perceived lack of size has been the biggest deterrent to getting drafted. But he draws inspiration from smaller NHL players like Chicago Blackhawks winger Patrick Kane and former Spokane teammate Tyler Johnson, an undrafted Tampa Bay Lightning centre who ranked third in NHL rookie scoring before Wednesday’s games.
For the time being, Holmberg is letting his agent, former NHL player Shayne Corson, deal with any contract offers while he focuses on helping the Chiefs win a championship for the first and last time in his WHL career.
“You want it more than ever, because you know you’re never going to get another chance,” said Holmberg.
Spokane general manager Tim Speltz praised Holmberg for working on his defensive game and becoming a better all-around player. The GM said some NHL clubs have showed interest in Holmberg.
“He’s not very big, but he’s proven that he’s a very complete player,” said Speltz. “He’s going to be able to play at the (professional) level.”
Notes: Fox is vying for the OHL scoring title with linemate Connor Brown, a 2012 Toronto Maple Leafs fifth-round draft pick (156th overall) who leads the OHL with 28 goals and 60 assists. a Erie hosts the Kingston Frontenacs on Friday while Spokane travels across Washington state to visit the Everett Silvertips.