While it is true that COVID-19 has led to a global pandemic, the fact of the matter is that there are differences, from one country to the next, in terms of both the magnitude of lockdowns and such, as well as the extent to which some form of sport has been allowed to return.
Heck, even within Canada, there is hardly uniformity from coast to coast, given the involvement of every single provincial or territorial government in the land.
Dario Beljo had no crystal ball when he accepted the offer to join the Brooks Bandits of the Alberta Junior Hockey League late last summer, but he’s sure glad he did.
Far more than most, Beljo has been able to enjoy some sort of semblance of a hockey season, one year after leading the Komoka Kings of the Greater Ontario Junior Hockey League in scoring with 31 goals and 27 assists in 45 games in 2019-20.
More than anything, the London Knights’ 10th-round pick in 2018 is simply thankful for the chance to hone his skills in the hopes of playing at the next level. It’s a trajectory the power forward started to pursue more fervently, even as his minor hockey days were coming to a close.
“In terms of style of play, I had some really good coaches in minor midget and in my first couple of years of junior,” Beljo said. “You have to play the game the right way before you start taking the offensive chances. In juniors, I would be sitting in the third period, and they (the coaches) would be telling me that I have to get better on the walls, or I have to be more reliable in the D-zone.
“I’m happy I learned that way, because when I came here to Brooks, I already had that up my sleeve.”
Mind you, it doesn’t hurt when the message is being supplemented not only by someone close to home, but someone you have grown to admire.
“I give a lot of credit to my uncle Jadran,” said Beljo. “When I was young, growing up, I used to watch him in the OHL. He had to learn the hard way. He was mostly an offensive guy coming in and really didn’t know much about playing hard at both ends. He made me well aware of that before I had to step in and go through that.
“I was more prepared than I would have been.”
In fact, Beljo was more grounded than most as he attended his first OHL camp back in 2018, understanding there was a process at hand, even if his draft day destination could not have been any better.
“I remember going to London to watch Jadran in a playoff game against Guelph,” he said. “Watching him score, I thought, was the coolest thing ever. When I was drafted to London, it was kind of a match made in heaven.”
That said, OHL rosters are not dotted with all that many players who are drafted beyond the eighth round or so.
“They were very honest with me, telling me that I wouldn’t be playing for them when I was 16, that it would be a longer development plan,and I was completely OK with that.
“I was just happy to be in the system.”
A solid showing at training camp prompted the Knights to step forward and help find Beljo a spot with Komoka, a local affiliate, allowing plenty of access for London team staff to follow the progress of the Northern lad.
“I was thrilled to be in that situation, moving over to play for one of their junior B teams, just because those 16-year-old spots are limited,” he said.
With 36 points in 47 games, Beljo did his part, contributing even more as a very young Kings team enjoyed an extended playoff run than was quite unexpected (Beljo has 11 points in 12 post-season encounters).
“That was a big deal for us,” he said. “Looking back, that was likely my favourite hockey memory ever, that playoff run.”
In hockey parlance, he was “getting it,” understanding how to carve out a role in the eyes of folks who understand that development in the sport is more of a marathon than a sprint.
“I started off that year and was scoring a lot,” he stated. “I scored at a slower pace near the end of the year, but I was a lot happier with my all-around game.”
It wasn’t quite enough to see the longtime SMHA product crack a very talented London roster in Year 2, but it definitely laid the framework for a continued rising of his stock.
The 2019-20 campaign with Komoka was one to remember, donning an A and leading the team in scoring. It was also the first time that Beljo had ever seriously contemplated a hockey pathway that might not lead through London.
“Around Christmas of my second year, I had my first American school call me,” he said. “That was the first time that I kind of realized that the NCAA was a possibility.”
Exciting? Yes, but not without an element of stress, with big decisions to be made at the worst possible time.
“It was a crazy off-season for me (in 2020),” said Beljo. “I had London in my sights, but I was looking at the whole school thing as being something I might want to pursue. And then I was getting calls from various junior A teams.”
While few could predict back in August that Alberta would enjoy far more flexibility in terms of actually hosting junior hockey games, to the point of being allowed full contact for roughly 20 outings to date, Beljo had other reasons to look seriously at this option, even if it meant moving well away from home in the midst of a pandemic.
“Right now, I think we only have four or five players who are (NCAA) uncommitted on our team,” he noted. “It’s such a winning culture and we practise so hard, it has really made the games fun.”
The fact is that most young hockey prospects would suggest any games in 2020-21 were fun, such was the scarcity of this opportunity, especially in Ontario.
“At many points of the year, we were one of the only places that was playing,” said Beljo. “When I first came, none of my friends back home were able to play.
“I felt so bad for them.”
That said, it’s a reality that has definitely influenced the lens through which he, his teammates and team staff are approaching the day-to-day grind.
“We know that this is an opportunity that could end literally any day,” said Beljo, whose team played as recently as Tuesday, recording a 5-2 win over Calgary Canucks, though they are now awaiting word on their next scheduled cohort.
As for a next step, it’s looking likely that he will return to Brooks for at least one more season in the fall.
“I’m not too worried about getting a commitment (NCAA) this year,” he said. “At the start of the year, in our first month, we had four or five guys commit — and we had only played two or three games at that point.”
Yet as he well knows, any games are better than no games at all.
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Randy Pascal, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Sudbury Star