It’s not hard to hear the excitement in Justin Cloutier’s voice.
The 16-year-old winger is a little over a month away from his first Ontario Hockey League training camp with the Soo Greyhounds and he’s looking forward to proving himself and win over the Greyhounds faithful.
“I play with a lot of skill, but also with a lot of grit and passion,” Cloutier said. “At the end of the day, I want to win, and I want to (succeed). With a fan base like the Sault, they expect a lot from the players and with my determination, I hope I can bring that for them.”
That skill is what led to Greyhounds general manager Kyle Raftis calling Cloutier’s name when the team stepped up for its first pick in the 2021 OHL Priority Selection in June.
“Justin is a dynamic forward, he skates really well,” Raftis said of Cloutier at the time. “He demands the puck in the zone and has great skill and just that motor that he plays with. You can see that skillset, you can see the skating, and you can see all the ability. It’s interesting as you talk to a lot of players in the Ottawa-area, he’s one of the toughest players for them to defend against.
“When we’re evaluating in a bit of a different season, it’s important to get that character on him and how motivated he is and how much he’s just obsessed with hockey and wants to be a part of it,” Raftis added. “That was what stood out on top of the skill.”
Selected 18th overall, Cloutier officially signed with the Greyhounds on Thursday.
“I was super excited to be drafted,” Cloutier said, adding that despite some extended time following the draft before signing with the team this week, “but the second I had the opportunity to sign, I was eager to do it and I was really excited to get things started with the Greyhounds.”
With ice time at a premium due to the COVID-19 pandemic leading to arena closures and lockdowns in the province, Cloutier took advantage of any opportunity he had to get on the ice, which included a backyard rink.
“There have been tons of ups and downs because of the shutdowns and things like that,” Cloutier said. “I’m pretty lucky that my dad built an outdoor rink in the backyard for me, and my brother and I have a gym in my basement too. I was doing fine (handling the pandemic) and just working hard at my house. When summer hit, I have a shooting pad in my backyard, so I’ve just tried to work hard through the pandemic. A lot of people used the pandemic to get better, and some slacked off a little bit and used the time to relax. I was just trying to work hard and come out of it better.”
With the Greyhounds planning to open training camp on Aug. 30, plans are already in place for Cloutier’s early days in the Sault.
“My mom has already got an AirBnB for home opener because she wants to be there to watch,” Cloutier said. “And I can’t wait (for training camp). It’s coming up soon and I couldn’t be happier.”
In preparation for camp and looking to make the jump to the OHL, the remainder of the summer will see the young forward look to improve his game further to play in a league where time and space on the ice can be at a premium.
“I work with a really great skills coach in Ottawa (Pat Malloy) and he’s really helped me prepare for the next level and I’m skating with guys who are at the next level,” Cloutier said. “Pat’s really helped me change my game a little bit and get me ready for one of the biggest years of my life.”
“I’m working on a little bit of everything, but the big thing is that time and space is so limited in the OHL,” Cloutier also said. “You don’t have the time and space that you do in AAA. The main thing is me working on making time and space for myself, because at the next level, there are definitely better, bigger guys that I’m not going to have (as much) time to think.”