Bright futures ahead for Courtice, Oshawa, Pickering and Whitby junior hockey players

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Published March 22, 2023 at 4:06 pm

Matthew Cato (#9) takes control against the USA in the World Jr. A Challenge gold medal game last December

For Lucas Littlejohn, Chazz Nixon, Ryan Johnstone and Matthew Cato, the future is still waiting to be written.

But the four local junior hockey players from Durham Region all have one thing in common: participation in the World Junior A Challenge, an international tournament that attracts university recruiters looking for their next student-athlete, major junior bird dogs seeking someone they may have overlooked (or deserves a second chance) and even NHL and European pro scouts searching for that diamond in the rough.

Parlaying the success the players enjoyed in the five-team tournament, held last December in Cornwall, and the 2022-23 Ontario Junior Hockey League season (now into the second round the playoffs) into something bigger has been the goal of all four players.

They all played for Canada East, one of two Canadian teams in the World Junior A Challenge tournament, along with Canada West, the USA, Sweden and Latvia. Canada East earned the silver medal, losing to the Americans in the final.

All four also had to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, which took a season away from them just as they were starting their junior hockey careers, though Littlejohn and Cato managed to get some brief playing time during the 20-21 season.

They’ve all taken slightly different paths to get to this point: Littlejohn, Nixon and Cato played for ten different junior clubs between them before arriving at their respective clubs; Johnstone went straight from his midget AAA team to the Panthers.

Lucas Littlejohn

The career trajectories for Littlejohn, 18, Nixon, 18, Johnstone, 18, and Cato, 19, are not likely to be the same either.

Littlejohn, a Courtice resident who played in the Clarington Toros organization, was a very late OHL draft pick – 12th round, 222nd overall by Niagara, but got a taste of OHL life last season with a 17-game stint with the Ice Dogs, scoring three goals. Assigned to Pickering of the OJHL, Littlejohn found his calling, especially in the playoffs where he played a major role in helping the Panthers win the Buckland Cup – their first league championship in a quarter century – and an even bigger part in the team’s run to the Centennial Cup national championship game.

Littlejohn, who was also a star player with the Whitby Warriors Minto Cup-winning national junior championship lacrosse club, picked up six points in seven games in the Centennial Cup tournament, while providing his usual formidable blueline presence that belies his 175-pound frame.

This season Littlejohn upped his offensive game with 36 points in 34 games, though the Panthers couldn’t replicate their 2022 team success, bowing out in the first round of the playoffs.

With the Ice Dogs in a rebuilding mode, Littlejohn, who still has a couple of years junior eligibility remaining, is expected to make the big club next season.

Ryan Johnstone

His teammate Ryan Johnstone is also property of Niagara after he was taken 4th overall in the 2022 U18 supplemental draft and may get a shot at the ‘Dogs training camp in St. Catharines this fall.

Johnstone, a former captain of the Ajax-Pickering Raiders, scored the Buckland Cup-clinching goal last spring in the most dramatic of fashions: Game seven against the Toronto Jr Canadiens with just 17 seconds left on the clock.

Johnstone added three assists in the Centennial Cup tournament – the Panthers were 13 minutes from the gold medal before the favoured Brooks (Alberta) Bandits broke through to win 4-1 – and contributed 37 points for Pickering this season.

Nixon, who spent his minor hockey days with the Oshawa Generals organization, wasn’t with the Jr. Canadiens when Pickering broke their collective hearts last year but he has been a big reason the club is ranked fourth in the nation and one of the favorites to represent the league in this year’s Centennial Cup.

The 6’3” goaltender got into two games in the World Jr. A Challenge in December and has showcased his talents on the ice this season with the Jr Canadiens with a 16-2 record, a sparkling 1.98 GAA and a .931 save percentage.

Nixon played Jr. B with Strathroy last year and impressed scouts in Mississauga enough to earn a two-game call with the OHL Steelheads before getting the call to head to the Jr. Canadians dynasty-in-the-making.

Chazz Nixon

It’s obviously been a successful year for the team and for Nixon but playing on a powerhouse squad – the team had a run of four straight shutouts this year, with #1 goalie James Norton getting three of them and Nixon the other – also means difficulty in getting ice time. The team went with Norton between the pipes for the first round sweep of North York and while they are poised for a long playoff run this year, the chances of a job for Nixon in the OHL next season will improve only if he gets some game action.

The Toronto Jr. Canadiens opponent in the second round is the Trenton Golden Hawks and Cato, the only player of the four who knows exactly where he will be in September. Cato, a product of the Whitby Wildcats organization, signed a four-year scholarship deal with the University of Vermont Catamounts of the NCAA in February.

Cato, the oldest of the foursome (he’ll be 20 in September) was passed over in the OHL entry draft but was grabbed in the U18 supplemental draft by Kitchener with the 17th overall pick in 2020.

Cato exploded offensively this year, starting with the World Junior A Challenge where he led the Canada East team in goals with four, including two in the Canadian bragging rights semi-final against Canada West and another in the final against the U.S. He was also among the top scorers in the league this year with 70 points in 47 games with Trenton and added a playoff-leading seven more in the five-game first round series win over Cobourg.

Game one in the Toronto-Trenton series goes tonight at the Scotiabank Pond arena at Downsview Park in north-west Toronto.

The immediate future is still being played out for Cato and Nixon; the career paths for all four players will be a little clearer this fall.

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