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Protz making most of minutes with Junior Sens

By: Ben Leeson / Sudbury Star

Much of Owen Protz’s time is devoted to his on-ice pursuits, but one of the Sudbury Wolves’ most promising defensive prospects is a young man with varied interests, from camping to cooking to chess.

Indeed, the 17-year-old Ottawa product believes a balanced approach to his athletic and academic activities has only made him a better hockey player, and may well have helped the sturdy 6-foot-1, 190-pounder to secure a commitment from the local OHL club at the end of a gruelling week-long training camp last September.

“Everyone going into a first camp with a major-junior team, they’re always going to be a bit nervous,” said Protz, who celebrated his birthday just two weeks ago. “It’s a big thing to have major-junior scouts and sometimes even NHL scouts looking at you, but I try to stay true to how I play and how I am, on and off the ice, respecting everyone and knowing everyone at major-junior camps are all great players.”

Sudbury’s fifth-round choice in the 2022 OHL Priority Selection, out of the Ottawa Junior Senators U18 AAA program, Protz had worked diligently through the off-season to improve his foot speed and his strength ahead of a two-day prospect camp and a three-day main camp in the Nickel City.

“It was pretty bad on the legs and mentally, too, it was a little exhausting, but it was good,” he recalled with a chuckle. “They set us up incredibly with the hotel and they fed us amazingly to make sure we had enough energy to go back on the ice a day after, play a couple of games and practices. I was pretty much taking time off when I could, never trying to do too much, knowing my limits and staying to that.”

When he does get an opportunity, Protz finds a break from the game can be refreshing. He loves the outdoors, having inherited a love of camping and hiking from his parents, Lisa Hadley and Pierre Protz.

“I have always loved having some time to myself, going outdoors, going for walks, just being outside,” he explained. “A lot of camping, but also cooking. I’m a big guy in the kitchen and my mom helped me learn how to cook.

“It’s all about getting some alone time and just giving myself time to breathe.”

It’s hard to find fault with his approach. In a promising crop of signed 2006-born defencemen who will vie for spots on the Sudbury blueline next season, Protz’s progress has been as encouraging as any. Having graduated to the Junior Sens’ entry in the Central Canada Hockey League, one of the strongest junior A loops this side of the Rocky Mountains, he’s playing meaningful minutes and even producing points for a club that entered the week ranked 10th in the country.

Protz leads league blueliners in his age group with 16 points in 43 games and his steady play in all zones has only bolstered his confidence, along with that of Wolves brass, that he’ll be ready to compete for a place on the roster when their next camp opens at the end of August.

“It was great to be able to sign and then to come back to Ottawa and to play with a great team in the CCHL, which is a U20, U21 league like the OHL,” Protz said. “It’s great for the experience, but also for timing things outside of hockey. It’s a constant back-to-back day — school, hockey, eat, work out, just an everyday routine, just like the OHL will be.”

He’s more than pleased with his development this season and praised members of the OJS coaching staff for their contributions — with a special shout-out to defensive specialist Ryan Hand, who previously worked in Hawkesbury alongside current Wolves assistant Rick Dorval.

“He has really helped me step up with my decision-making and just trying to process the quicker game in the CCHL,” Protz said of Hand, a former major-junior player himself in Quebec and a 10-year professional. “Everyone is a little bit stronger, a little bit faster, and he has helped me get there, to develop my game.”

Five sessions a week at Gladiator Fitness and Strength Training, along with occasional off days and weekends, have helped to keep him in tip-top physical form.

“A lot of it is just consistency, to keep on going through games, keep on going through practices the way I want to play, try not to switch up anything so it’s not how I play hockey.”

Another connection to the Wolves comes through rookie forward Nathan Villeneuve, a longtime teammate in minor and spring hockey, then a respected opponent in the HEO U18 league last season.

“I have gotten to know him well and I know a lot of his idiosyncrasies, a lot of his habits on the ice, which is why I really love to play with him — and against him,” Protz said. “He’s a great guy to be around.”

Praised in his OHL draft year for his versatility, his steady defensive play, gap control and his heavy point shot, Protz was ninth in the U18 loop among all 15-year-old defencemen with 14 points, but tied for second in goals with six in 32 games. He listed the ability to make decisions under pressure as one of his best attributes — once again, with the aid of skills acquired in a non-hockey setting.

“The first pass, for me, has always been great and I feel like I have always been able to see the ice,” Protz said. “I used to play a lot of chess, so I see a lot of the players and different positions and different pieces and I try to see who is the best option, when and where.

“Especially now, since it’s a bigger league and faster, I try to stick more towards my defensive skill and I have tried to really strengthen that, so my defensive skill this year has really gone up and my coaches have seen it, too, which I think is why I’m on the penalty kill.”

Wolves general manager Rob Papineau, who can also count the likes of Will Bishop, Conor Walton and Braydon Bruce among the signed 16- and 17-year-old defencemen who will look for greater roles with the club in 2023-24, firmly believes Protz will be in the thick of that mix.

“He’s having a really good year,” said Papineau, who has seen his team’s previous fourth- and fifth-rounders, such as Nolan Collins, Andre Anania, Nathan Ribau, Liam Ross and Isaak Phillips become highly capable OHLers and even pros.

“He has picked up on a good training camp he had with us and we’re really happy he got into junior. The CCHL’s a very good league, a respected league and especially for a young defenceman, to be playing in that league, it’s not easy to get one of those two 16-year-old cards, but he got it and he’s doing very well.

“He’s got really strong gap coverage through the neutral zone and he’s a hard guy to play against, he’s physical, he’ll hit you. We’re really happy with his development there.”

Protz is excited by the prospect of lining up alongside players such as Collins and Matthew Mania, the NHL draft-eligible rearguard who had emerged as the Wolves’ leading scorer from the back end with 29 points in 52 games ahead of a visit to Niagara on Friday. Such up-and-coming D-men, along with Sudbury’s track record of producing high-end skaters for the professional ranks, made it an easy decision to commit to the team, rather than pursuing other options.

“Marc Staal just had his number retired and they have produced a lot of incredible players over the years,” Protz said. “I knew I had a future with Sudbury and that’s why I chose to come to camp and to try out.”

While the Wolves are focused on earning a post-season berth this spring, many expect the still-young Sudbury squad to contend for an OHL championship next season — another possibility that excites the young prospect.

A deep run with the Junior Sens, the CCHL’s winningest team as of mid-week with a record of 34-8-3-2, will only boost his chances of being a key member of the Pack’s post-season drive in the future.

“I think the team we have now has the perfect combination of speed, size, strength, skill and a little bit of tenacity sometimes,” Protz said. “I truly think we’ll be able to make it to the Centennial Cup and play against all those great teams across Canada, just like OJS did last year and a couple years before. We have been doing incredible as a team and just to be able to have a chance to play with them and to get meaningful minutes, it’s amazing.”