SUDBURY, Ont. – Skating amongst an already rookie-laden roster, Nicholas DeGrazia of the Rayside-Balfour Canadians saw his efforts recognized as one of the premier first-year players in the Northern Ontario Junior Hockey League in 2019-20.
As a freshman with Rayside-Balfour, his exceptional initial campaign in the NOJHL saw the 17-year-old Thunder Bay product skate away with league rookie of the year laurels and a berth on its first all-star team at forward.
“It was pretty special for sure,” remarked DeGrazia on his achievements competing in his first year of Jr. A hockey when asked by NOJHL.com.
“Those awards were a couple of my goals I had coming into the season, so it was nice to achieve that against some very good players in this league,” added the scoring stalwart.
Helping the Canadians capture the NOJHL’s West Division title with his on-ice efforts, he topped all rookies in tallies with 32 and tied for first in points among first-year skaters with 61 in 46 outings while performing at well over a point-per-game clip.
It also saw him finish tied for third in markers and knot him for sixth overall in league numbers among all skaters.
His club knew DeGrazia’s contributions played a key component in the overall success the squad produced on the year.
“Nicholas, along with a host of our first-year players in Rayside-Balfour, was a huge contributing factor to our team success in helping us capture the West Division and representing our owners, Mark and Karen Burgess, with pride and professionalism,” stated Canadians general manager Jeff Forsyth.
Featuring 11 full-time rookies in their line-up during the season, it was the one-two tandem of DeGrazia and Mitchell Martin who finished the regular season tied for top spot on the squad in offensive production and ending up first among skaters in their initial run in the NOJHL with 61 points apiece.
Playing alongside someone like Martin was something that DeGrazia was quick to point out in helping foster his success when queried about his solid season.
“My teammate Mitchell Martin was incredible,” he said. “Such a great player. So many of my teammates were great too.”
Boasting the third-best record in the league at 40-11-3-2, a limited inter-division slate saw RBC not get much of an opportunity to go head-to-head with the top two teams in the overall standings, the Powassan Voodoos and Timmins Rock, respectively.
“We didn’t get a chance to see the guys in the East (Division) too much,” discussed DeGrazia.
“We played Powassan the first two games of the season, so we didn’t see them after that, but obviously them and Timmins were two of the best teams in the league.”
While excelling in the NOJHL, his superb play also caught the eye of National Hockey League Central Scouting, who in turn helped select him for a roster spot on Team Canada East that went on to win a silver medal at the most recent World Junior A Challenge staged in Dawson Creek, B.C.
That chance to represent his country was one DeGrazia will not soon forget.
“The whole experience was pretty special,” he recalled fondly. “It’s always been a dream of mine to play for Canada and wear that Canadian jersey.”
“Getting to play with all those guys was great,” DeGrazia added while commenting on Canada East that also featured Powassan goaltender Owen Say along with Timmins Rock bench boss Corey Beer and the Voodoos’ J.J. Johnson, as equipment manager, on the staff.
“All the players were good; we had a great coaching staff and every one of those teams we played against were very talented. Tough losing that gold medal game in double overtime to Russia, but winning a silver is pretty good.”
Returning to Rayside-Balfour, he aided in propelling the Canadians to a league-best 16-1-0-1 run down the stretch and be a significant roll heading into the playoffs, that were abruptly halted due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Not seeing a NOJHL champion crowned was clearing disheartening, but clearly understandable for all those associated with the league.
“It was really disappointing for sure,” DeGrazia offered when asked for his thoughts on the sudden end to the season.
“Not getting a chance to finish the year was pretty difficult,” he reflected. “We thought we had the team in Rayside to win the league and get to the Dudley (Dudley-Hewitt Cup) and maybe beyond. I guess we’ll never know how it would have come out.”
Even with the campaign halted, the crafty RBC skater earned further attention from the Canadian Junior Hockey League, by being voted a finalist for national rookie of the year laurels.
This nod also left a positive impression on him.
“This was pretty amazing, just to get picked among that group. Devon Levi (CJHL Rookie and Player of the Year & WJAC MVP) was phenomenal and is an unbelievable player. Being considered one of the top rookies across the whole CJHL was pretty special.”
Canadians’ GM Forsyth knew he had a distinct prospect that he helped recruit to the club, who was deserving of the honours he earned.
“Nick was recognized throughout season by the NOJHL, and NHL Central Scouting in the WJAC, for his performances and he really asserted himself as among the elite in our league.”
Sporting a plethora of young talent, such as DeGrazia, is sure to be a future boon for the Canadians.
“Being able to attract players of Nick’s calibre has not only helped us recruit equally gifted players for our loyal fans in Rayside and the NOJHL to enjoy watching, but also continues to bring notoriety to our brand of being a team that continuously strives to develop our players and help prepare them for the future, both on and off the ice,” added Forsyth.
Looking to take his game to the Ontario Hockey League and the Sudbury Wolves, who drafted him, when play resumes, DeGrazia aims to use his exceptional offensive ability while concentrating on other areas of his game, that he’ll look to help him succeed at the next level.
“I want to work on my defensive game for sure. That is something I’ll work on when I get to Sudbury. I’ll keep trying to improve offensively too.”
As for Forsyth, he looks to see DeGrazia take what he learned in the NOJHL in 2019-20 and use that as he looks to crack the Wolves’ line-up.
“Nicholas had a tremendous first year of junior, gaining valuable experience that will serve coach Cory Stillman and the Sudbury Wolves well this coming season.”
“We look forward to watching him continue to develop under the watchful eyes of the Sudbury staff.”