About the last thing Kraken draft pick Ryan Winterton’s hockey career needs is more down time.

But after being sidelined the better part of two years, Winterton, 18, has made up for things in a hurry, helping lead his Hamilton Bulldogs junior team to an Ontario Hockey League championship and a berth in Monday’s semifinal against Shawinigan at the ongoing Memorial Cup tournament in Saint John, New Brunswick.

So a little midweek tournament break spent whale watching and eating lobster with teammates during Winterton’s first visit to Atlantic Canada was a welcome, albeit brief, respite from what’s become a dramatically extended comeback season.

“It’s been cool,” Winterton, a native of Whitby, Ontario, said last week. “Where our hotel’s located is kind of out of town, so we went out in town today to the water, and yesterday we went whale watching. It’s cool to get out and experience the nature and all that has to offer.”

There’d been little room for fun and games — especially games — since March 2020 as Winterton grappled with a COVID-19 league shutdown, the subsequent cancellation of the ensuing OHL season and then a badly dislocated shoulder suffered right before he was to attend Kraken training camp last fall. But after doubts about his future admittedly creeped in, Winterton stayed strong, finally returned to the Bulldogs in January and is now playing for major junior hockey’s ultimate prize.

“I think the two years off from juniors kind of helped me to get my priorities straight,” said Winterton, who tumbled somewhat unexpectedly into the Kraken’s hands last summer as a third-round draft pick (67th overall selection). “I kind of dialed in real hard through COVID and really just fell in love with the game.”

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Not that he hadn’t “loved” hockey before. But after playing nonstop since childhood, through elite camps, tournaments and travel squads, the imposed career pause enabled him to re-evaluate whether he wanted to keep doing this seven days a week.

“You realize how much you miss a game when you get taken away from it for two years,” Winterton said. “You kind of appreciate the little things.”

Right now he’s appreciating the Memorial Cup, the annual clash of major junior league champions running through Wednesday, as something beyond a string of elite tournaments past and possibly upcoming. 

This year’s event featured the host Saint John squad, Winterton’s OHL Bulldogs, the Western Hockey League-winning Edmonton Oil Kings — who defeated the Seattle Thunderbirds in a six-game final — and the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League champion Shawinigan Cataractes. 

“It feels kind of surreal,” Winterton said. “I’m just trying to soak up the last couple of weeks with these guys and trying to win a championship with them. These are obviously big platforms you want to do your best in.”

Winterton scored a goal Friday as the Bulldogs eliminated Edmonton 4-2 and advanced to Monday’s semifinal against Shawinigan, which lost to Saint John in Saturday’s round robin finale. With the victory, Saint John finished first and gained automatic entry into Wednesday’s championship game.

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Winterton had scored two goals and assisted on a third in his team’s 5-3 loss to Saint John in last Monday’s tournament opener. Hamilton then lost to Shawinigan 3-2 on Thursday to set up the must-win scenario against Edmonton.

Friday’s game was the 56th for Winterton this season, counting playoffs. That’s fast approaching a typical 68-game OHL season, despite Winterton returning from injury only midway through. 

He quickly made up for lost time, scoring 20 goals and notching 26 assists in only 37 regular-season games, then had seven more goals and 12 assists in 18 playoff contests — one assist helping open the scoring in a 6-1 win over Windsor in Game 7 of the OHL championship to reach the Memorial Cup.

Winterton’s only serious pandemic-era competition before January had been winning gold with Team Canada at the April 2021 IIHF World Under-18 championship in Texas.

“At the start, I was feeling that pressure of not much playing,” Winterton said. “You’re just kind of sitting at home doing nothing. You’re trying to get better, but nobody’s really watching. So it starts to get in your head a bit.”

Still, he kept training, skating as much as possible and playing in 5-on-5 and 3-on-3 scrimmages organized by his agent and various coaches. He’d balked at playing in Europe, hopeful of rumors the OHL would play the 2020-21 season — it did not — and likely saw his draft stock slip as a result.

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But the Kraken, who’d scouted Winterton in Texas and figured he might go as high as the second round last year, pounced with their third-round pick.

“The great thing for him is he missed a lot of hockey with the season being shut down two years ago and then his injury,” Kraken general manager Ron Francis said. “But then he came out of the gates flying to get through the season and then get into the playoffs. Playing in a Game 7 and then winning a Game 7 and getting an assist in that game, these are all just confidence builders for him. He obviously hasn’t been overwhelmed facing the best (junior) teams, so that’s very exciting for us moving forward.”

The Kraken plan to have Winterton play another OHL season next year before any professional contract. 

Francis will have Winterton in Seattle for a Kraken development camp July 10-14. Winterton then heads to Team Canada’s national junior selection camp July 23-27, hoping for addition to the squad playing in the pandemic-rescheduled 2022 IIHF World Junior Championships in August, or else that he’ll make the roster for the regularly scheduled 2023 tournament in December.

“If I could make that team, it would definitely be a dream come true,” Winterton said.

Among other dreams Winterton is now pursuing two years after being hip-checked into the possibility of losing them.