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OHL player with Newmarket ties is 'straw that's stirring the drink'

Barrie Colts' over-age forward Evan Vierling is looking to make the most of his final days in the Ontario Hockey League

While hesitant to paint too rosy of picture, Barrie Colts coach/general manager Marty Williamson allowed that his hockey club looks good with playoffs looming on the horizon.

“We are starting to rock and roll,” Williamson said after the Colts beat the Erie Otters, 5-1, at Sadlon Arena on Thursday night and before last weekend’s slate of games.

Two days later, the Colts took down the Oshawa Generals, 6-3, to give Williamson his 306th win, a franchise record that surpassed the late Dale Hawerchuk.

Williamson’s biggest rock star this season, with apologies to captain Brandt Clarke, has been Evan Vierling.

The Colts' 20-year-old centre recently scored his 30th goal of the season and is one of the hottest players in the Ontario Hockey League with a gaudy 31-goal, 40-assist, 71-point stat line in 49 games.

“He’s the straw that is stirring the drink right now,” Williamson said of Vierling.

Heading into Sunday's game, the Colts were firmly in third in the Eastern Conference, having won 33 of 56 games and still having a shot at catching the North Bay Battalion, who lead the Central Division. Vierling added had two more assists to his stats.

Vierling’s OHL career has been a study in contrasts. Picked second overall by the Flint Firebirds behind his minor hockey teammate, Quinton Byfield, Vierling has seen more than his share of ups-and-downs. He did enough in his first two OHL seasons to earn a fifth-round selection (127th overall) by the NHL's New York Rangers.

Beset by injury and a difficult personal situation in Flint, Vierling moved to Barrie not long before the pandemic struck. He showed well in his new digs here, which are not far from where he grew up in the Aurora/Newmarket area.

But the scrubbed 2020-21 season hit 2002-born players such as Vierling particularly hard. A player’s NHL draft-plus-one season is always critical for development and it was snatched away from Vierling. He spent it trying to find meaningful ice time and recovering from a knee injury. Making it worse was the return to play in 2021-22 was scattered with COVID-19 pandemic cancellations and mandate restrictions.

His fresh start in Barrie a distant memory, Vierling seemed to flatline. It was then that he received the difficult news that the Rangers were not going to sign him.

“That was a tough phone call,” he remembered.

Back to the drawing board, Vierling earned a training camp invite with the Columbus Blue Jackets last summer/fall. He stuck around through the development gathering, rookie tournament and finally the main camp. He even got into an exhibition game in Pittsburgh.

Asked to describe his time with the Blue Jackets in general and suiting up in an NHL pre-season contest in particular, Vierling had a one-word response that spoke volumes: “Awesome."

It was not awesome when he got back to Barrie. At least not at first. The Colts had four over-age players: Vierling, his now regular linemate Ethan Cardwell and Declan McDonnell up front, and defenceman Ian Lemieux on the back end. Vierling had to sit out a few games as a healthy scratch because OHL rules permit only three over-age players.

Vierling could have sulked around, but it was not long after he picked up his play and gave Williamson little choice but to keep him in the lineup. Solid play into the Christmas break has been even better since – he’s the Colts best player most nights.

Vierling’s potential pro future is still up in the air. The ideal scenario is to earn an NHL contract before the season ends, but he’s not there yet.

Sadlon Arena, like most OHL barns, has its share of NHL scouts through it. Many have come this season to see Vierling — and teammate Beau Akey. A critical bunch at the best of times, asking around about Vierling got back a constructive response.

“I don’t believe what I see from over-agers, except in very rare cases and Vierling right now isn’t one of them,” said one scout, who added he’s been impressed with his play this year, but that he’d need to show more at the American Hockey League level for him to be convinced.

Another scout, working for a Western Conference team, said his club is not considering Vierling, but “can see why other teams would.”

It was a classic non-answer to a question that many scouts, of those who will talk at all, are experts at giving. It also illustrates how important it is that Vierling continue to plug away and expand the type of two-way game he’s made strides with as he’s piled up points.

Williamson said he’s fielded plenty of calls about Vierling. Asked what his resurgent pupil needs to do to make an NHL contract a reality, he gave a more direct answer.

“Evan has the ability, everyone knows that and (understands) that,” said Williamson. “What he needs to continue to do is to work on his intensity.”

When that assessment was put to Vierling, he agreed and pointed out in a very understated fashion that he’s been much better this season at being “more assertive.”

A day later, Vierling put on another command performance: scoring shorthanded and adding two assists against the Generals.

It helped gave Williamson the Colts coaching record and more showings like it may eventually get Vierling an elusive NHL contract.

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Peter Robinson

About the Author: Peter Robinson

Barrie's Peter Robinson is a sports columnist for BarrieToday. He is the author of Hope and Heartbreak in Toronto, his take on living with the disease of being a Leafs fan.
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