It’s the first intermission of game one, round one of the OHL playoffs, and the crowd in the Erie Insurance Arena is abuzz. Though Erie is a team loaded with offensive stars–where the spectacular is expected and often forgotten–fans have witnessed something truly incredible: after the Sarnia Sting shocked the Otters by scoring the first goal of the series, a young, small forward named Kyle Maksimovich heaved his team onto his slight shoulders and rattled off one, two, three goals–a first period hat-trick, and the first hat-trick of his career. What might’ve been the start to Sarnia’s once-in-a-lifetime upset was sharply cut off at the knees by his efforts.
Soon into the second period, however, a voice booms over the arena loudspeakers: it was not, in fact, Maksimovich’s first career hat-trick. The second Otters’ goal, which originally appeared to be Maksimovich’s, is Warren Foegele’s tally. Maksimovich insisted to his teammates and the officials that he had not touched the puck on its way in–the goal is Foegele’s by rights. The on-ice officials, the fans, even Foegele, were all happy to pretend the goal was Maksimovich’s, but the forward is determined that his teammate receive due credit. For his honesty, he gets a consolation prize: an assist for creating the play, a first period three-point effort.
With bright blonde hair dyed for the playoffs, a dark goatee, and a crimson scar carved into his cheek, a souvenir from the London Knights, Kyle Maksimovich–in appearance, at least– gives the impression of an extremely affable rogue, the kind that wouldn’t look out of place next to Johnny Depp in a Pirates of the Caribbean sequel. Though he’s known as easygoing, relaxed, his usual grin has been replaced by a grim, determined look: “You’re more dialed in [for the playoffs],” he says. “You’re more serious. You know that it’s win or lose, and if you’re not with it, if you don’t win, then you can go home.”
Win or go home; Memorial Cup or bust; the Otters are all in, the phrase becoming the hashtag of choice for Otters executives, players, and fans on Twitter. The Otters must win this year, and the trade deadline sent the proper message to the team. Enter Warren Foegele and Memorial Cup champion Anthony Cirell. “It’s huge [having Cirelli] on the team,” Maksimovich, a veteran of three OHL campaigns, says. “He has experience and knows what it takes to get there. So you can always look to him when we’re down, or when we need some advice on what needs to happen. He’s always there, so it’s great to have his experience and it’s great for the team.”
“I think there’s a little bit more confidence in the room,” he continues. “We realized after the deadline that we got some key players for the team, and that we could have a good shot at making a run for it [ . . . ] It’s a lot more mature room. We’ve got older guys and it’s very helpful for some of the guys like–well, myself. I’m decently young. I feel like I can look up to the older crowd and the older guys for advice and what to do. You know, during a tough game or a tough situation, it’s good for that.”
Maksimovich, who is eligible for the 2017 NHL Draft after going unselected in 2016, has a lot to prove in the playoffs. Despite this, he’s focused on the present instead of the future: “Everybody’s focused on making it to the next step, the next jump to the NHL. But I can’t really focus too much on that, we got a bigger goal at hand here. We’re trying to make a run for the championship. It’s always going to be in the back of my mind. It’s always something I look for and dream for, so we’ll just have to see how it goes at the end of the season.”
He credits attending Vancouver’s training camp at the beginning of the hockey season with his consistency this year: “You see what it takes at the next level, with the preparation and work ethic it takes to make it there.”
The Otters will need Maksimovich to continue producing offensively through the playoffs: they’ll face the London Knights in the second round of the playoffs, setting the stage for the OHL’s two biggest rivals to battle it out for a berth in the Western Conference final. Maksimovich has six points in six games against the Knights during the regular season: two goals and four assists. On a team loaded with stars and future NHLers, Maksimovich–nineteen, often overshadowed by teammates who receive more glory, more press, and attention from scouts for their efforts–will be an anchor on the Otters’ second line, playing an important two-way role on a team known for their offense as the Otters continue their long road through the OHL playoffs.
by Caleb McLaughlin