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Ethan Cardwell remembers the first time he signed an autograph when he was just 16 years old. He hadn’t developed a real signature yet so it was more like a scribble. But he has it down pat now.

Cardwell, 20, has had a lot of practice perfecting his autograph during his five seasons playing junior hockey in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL), where he has become one of the best forwards.

During the 2022–2023 season Cardwell led his team, the Barrie Colts, with 43 goals, which was the 11th highest total in the entire OHL. The Colts are based in Barrie, Ontario, an hour north of Toronto.

Cardwell (a San Jose Sharks draft pick) dreams of playing in the NHL soon. For many prospects, the journey toward that dream begins in junior hockey.

Junior hockey is for players between 16 and 21 years old. Life in the junior leagues is very different from what athletes in other sports usually experience at that age. Junior teams play in large arenas with crowds in the thousands, and the players have to make a serious commitment to a certain lifestyle, as well as the sport itself.

The OHL is one of three member leagues in the Canadian Hockey League (CHL), which is the world’s largest developmental hockey league. There were 405 CHL alumni named to NHL opening rosters at the start of the 2022–2023 season. The OHL has teams across Ontario, and in Pennsylvania and Michigan.

OHL players often represent their country in the IIHF (International Ice Hockey Federation) World Junior Championship, and are even included in the EA Sports NHL video game series.

A lot of the time, junior hockey players wind up on a team that is far from home. Cardwell grew up 90 minutes away from Barrie. Other OHL players come from much farther away.

Moving far from home as a teen can be a stressful experience. To help young players transition to living in a new city and manage all of their responsibilities, junior hockey teams assign their players to “billet families” that host them for as long as they play for the team.

“I spend a ton of time with my billet family,” Cardwell says. “It's like your family away from home, so we have a great bond. They make you feel super comfortable and just treat you like you're right at home.”

Rob Ferguson, the Billet Program & Education Coordinator for the Barrie Colts, says that a lot of thought goes into finding high quality billet families and a good match for players. Among other things, they consider whether the player is used to living with siblings or pets. “We talk to their families too, where the player came from, what their family makeup is like. We try to match all those things up, sort of mirror what they had at home.”

Ben Pickell, Cardwell’s cousin and teammate, is 17 and finishing his second season as a forward with the Colts. He says he feels like a member of his billet family, not just a long-term guest. “We just created a relationship that's gonna be there forever. We do a lot of things together and it’s really good to be with them.”

Players don’t necessarily stay with the same team throughout their junior hockey career. Trades happen, and when they do it can be very sudden for the player and the billet family.

“The two worst feelings for a billet family is if your player gets traded and when the season ends,” Ferguson says. After a trade, the new team usually wants the player right away. They may be asked to pack a bag and head out immediately, and that can be difficult when the player and his billet family are close.


In addition to playing high level hockey and living away from home, players still have to find time to keep up with their school work and participate in community events.

Making sure that players succeed in school is very important to OHL teams like the Colts. Younger players like Pickell, who are still in high school, may attend school in person or may have a mix of in-person and online classes. “Right now I'm doing online, but back home, I'll go to high school and play sports and just hang out with my buddies,” Pickell says.

They have access to tutors and the team works with the high school to plan the players’ schedules. If a player misses a class, a phone call will be placed to the billet parents or to Ferguson. Standards are high on and off the ice.

Older players like Cardwell who have graduated high school may pursue higher education while they are playing hockey. “I take a few university courses online. With our schedule being so demanding it's pretty hard to get to classes in person,” explains Cardwell. Every OHL player is also eligible for a generous scholarship from their team once they graduate from the OHL.

Players have a very busy schedule. The 68-game season runs from September through March, typically with two games per week and practice on the other days, and for teams that make the playoffs the season can extend into May. Many of their away games involve long distance travel.

Practices are long and exhausting. “They get to the rink for a noon practice,” Ferguson says. “Depending upon what's going on that day, practice is probably two or two and a half hours.”

In order to keep their players healthy throughout the season, the Colts try to make sure they get enough rest. “Their curfew is 10:30,” Ferguson explains. “They call one of us in the coaching staff at 10:30 to make sure that they’re home, that everything is fine.”

During the off season, players can go back home to be with their families and friends. Hockey training is still a part of their summers, and they may be invited to participate in training camps by NHL teams.

Junior hockey teams are also very active in community events, helping schools and local charities raise money. “I like going to the schools and visiting with the kids,” Cardwell says. “It's awesome to see smiles on their faces.”

Junior hockey players often get treated like celebrities where they play. They get recognized by fans and are asked to sign autographs and take pictures. “It's awesome to see these young fans when they're cheering loudly in the crowd yelling your name,” Pickell says. But when they go home? Cardwell and Pickell both agree that in their hometown of Courtice, Ontario they are seen as just the same kids who grew up there.

All of the dedication required by the OHL paid off for Cardwell in 2021 when he was drafted by the Sharks in the fourth round. “I was just really proud of myself and the hard work that I put in,” Cardwell remembers.

Players who are drafted can move directly to the NHL. For example, in 2005 Sidney Crosby was drafted by the Pittsburgh Penguins at the age of 18 after just two seasons in the CHL, and made his NHL debut 67 days later.

Usually, though, players continue playing junior hockey after being drafted. “[The San Jose Sharks] come to the games and give me feedback,” Cardwell explains. “I'll go down there in June for development camp and then back in September for main camp.”

Cardwell’s journey to the NHL took another turn on April 14, when he signed a three-year, entry-level contract with the Sharks.

He feels that his time in the OHL has helped prepare him for a future in the NHL. “It's a huge thing to move away from home at a young age,” he says. “Now me leaving at 20 and going on to pro hockey is going to be another big step, but I feel like the OHL gets you ready for that, and it'll just be another step in the right direction.”