Mason McTavish had a somewhat awkward welcome to professional hockey.
The center, No. 2 on NHL Central Scouting’s final ranking of North American skaters for the 2021 NHL Draft, expected to play for Peterborough of the Ontario Hockey League this season. But with the OHL delaying and ultimately canceling its season due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus, he was one of several players who traveled to Europe to find a place to play.
For McTavish, that was Olten in the Swiss League, the second-highest professional league in Switzerland. His father, Dale McTavish, played 10 seasons in the National League, the country’s top league.
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Dale McTavish had 474 penalty minutes, including a few fights. One of them was against defenseman Philippe Rytz.
Rytz has been Olten’s captain the past two seasons.
“It was kind of cool to meet him,” McTavish said. “I wasn’t sure if he’d like me or not just because he fought my dad, but that was pretty cool.
“It’s just one of those things that’s pretty weird, but he was a great guy.”
“Great” was a word McTavish used frequently to describe his time overseas, as did three other OHL players in the top 15 in Central Scouting’s final ranking who crossed the Atlantic to find a team: Barrie defenseman Brandt Clarke (No. 7), Flint left wing Brennan Othmann (No. 8) and Kitchener center Francesco Pinelli (No. 15).
“They went over there by themselves, had to adapt and learn a new kind of hockey language and be in a different country,” Central Scouting’s Joey Tenute said. “They all adapted very well, they all really found a big role on each of their teams and that’s impressive for players of their age to go over there and so quickly adapt. It shows me that they’re all very high-end players.”
Switzerland was an easy choice for McTavish (6-foot-1, 207 pounds) when he was looking for a team. He was born in Zurich and lived in the country until he was 10, when his family moved back to Canada.
He arrived in February, after he turned 18 and got his working visa, and scored 11 points (nine goals, two assists) in 13 regular-season games and seven points (two goals, five assists) in four playoff games.
“In a pro league he stepped in and got better every game,” Director of Central Scouting Dan Marr said. “It got to be near the end of his play there that every time he was on the ice he was controlling play and making things happen.”
Off the ice, McTavish was helped by having Othmann as a teammate.
“He helped me get integrated faster with the team,” McTavish said. “We’re both younger guys going to a new country and we don’t know anybody on the team. The players were obviously super-great and super-welcoming, but definitely made it a lot easier having him there.”
Othmann (6-0, 175) also had some background in Switzerland; his father, Gery Othmann, and his uncle, Robert Othmann, each played professionally in the country. Robert Othmann played five seasons with Olten and still lives in Switzerland.
Brennan Othmann joined Olten in November, and scored 16 points (seven goals, nine assists) in 34 games. The 18-year-old also credited Rytz for helping him adjust.
“The really big thing that helped me out playing in Switzerland was my physical game,” Othmann said. “[Rytz] wanted you to play physical in practice, he wanted you to play hard on him, he wanted to get better. Seeing a guy that’s 36 years old wanting an 18-year-old kid, a 17-year-old kid to go hard against him, to battle him, just impressed me.
“It showed me how hard these guys want it and how hard hockey is all over the world. It changed my mindset toward the game a lot and it was huge for my development and my game and I think that’s why I became more physical.”
Though McTavish and Othmann each had a natural path to Switzerland, Clarke (6-2, 185) had a more difficult time finding a team. He had a deal in November to play with Vasby in Allsvenskan, the second-highest league in Sweden, but paperwork issues prevented that.
He eventually signed with Nove Zamky in the Slovak Extraliga, the top league in Slovakia. The team also offered a spot to his older brother, forward Graeme Clarke, a New Jersey Devils prospect.
“Being brothers and never being able to play together before, we felt we had to jump all over that opportunity,” Brandt said.
They arrived in December, but their time together lasted six games; the Devils assigned Graeme to Binghamton of the American Hockey League in January.
“Being a 17-year-old kid halfway across the world, your big brother just kind of picked up his stuff and left, I wasn’t really sure how I was personally going to react to that, but I think I did pretty solid for myself,” said Brandt, now 18. “I recovered well. I didn’t let it affect my on-ice play. He was telling me, ‘Hey we’re going to go to bed now, turn off your phone,’ he was waking me up in the morning, and I didn’t have that anymore so I had to be more independent. … In a sense I did do a lot of growing up when I was over there.”
He also grew on the ice, scoring 15 points (five goals, 10 assists) in 26 games.
“Brandt is a very elite offensive defenseman,” Tenute said. “He’s got elite hockey IQ, his vision on the ice is off the charts.
“You’re looking at a guy that offense is obviously his bread and butter but he shows up defensively, he battles, he’s willing to get invovled physically. I think that in the future, you’re going to see a well-rounded two-way defenseman.”
Pinelli (6-0, 185) opted for Slovenia-based club Jesenice in the Alps League.
Like the others, it was Pinelli’s first time living alone, and there were some bumps in the road.
“Definitely a lot of phone calls the first week and a half to my mom, teaching me how to cook,” he said. “But I enjoyed cooking.”
He persevered on the ice as well, scoring 11 points (five goals, six assists) in 13 games.
“He’s a guy that can play at both ends of the ice,” Tenute said. “If there’s a physical game, he’s involved. Skilled game, he’s at the forefront. He shows good habits away from the puck as well.”
Pinelli said his experiences overseas were positive, and like McTavish, Othmann and Clarke, understands the adversity they dealt with this season will benefit them as they push for NHL spots in the future.
“The year started off bad with no OHL season and thinking this year’s going to be really bad,” he said. “But it turned out to be a pretty good one for myself. I went overseas … it turned out to be a really good season for me and I really enjoyed it.”
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