Justin Bailey (left), is beginning his first season in the OHL with the Kitchener Rangers. (Photo by Matt Brown)
It’s been a long journey for Justin Bailey, yet the story has just begun. Recently tabbed as an ‘A’ list prospect by NHL Central Scouting (meaning he’s expected to go in the first round of the draft), the Kitchener Rangers rookie center is already a well-travelled young man, the path studded with famous names in the hockey world.
“Growing up in Buffalo, we lived in the same condo as Matthew Barnaby, Michael Peca and Rob Ray,” he said. “Barnaby helped me along the way with a lot of decision-making.”
Plus, it was pretty cool for the impressionable youngster to go to games and have pucks flipped over the boards to him during warmups. Suiting up for the Buffalo Regals as a teen, Bailey used his advanced size and skill to become an impact player early, so much so that he helped the Regals to the state championship final, where they came upon the Long Island Royals, coached by New York legend Pat LaFontaine. Bailey’s team took the title, but also caught LaFontaine’s eye. Soon after, the young center was living with the Hall of Famer and playing for that same Royals squad.
“It was good to have someone you could ask questions when you came home from the rink,” Bailey said.
At 6-foot-3, 190 pounds, Bailey already has an impressive frame and it will only get stronger with time.
“What was most attractive about Justin was the raw ability and upside,” said Kitchener coach-GM Steve Spott. “His size and skill made him our No. 1 recruit. He’s first on pucks, he takes it to the net and he has all the ingredients of a top-six forward.”
The Rangers are stacked this year, with top prospects such as Radek Faksa, Ryan Murphy and John Gibson leading the way. That means Bailey has the opportunity to learn at a measured pace, since he’s not expected to carry the team by any stretch. Spott has played him on several different lines early on and has been impressed by Bailey’s willingness to put in extra time.
“He’s a sponge right now when it comes to learning,” Spott said. “Growing up, Justin could do a lot on his own because of his size, so now he’s learning to use his teammates. There’s been a lot of video and he’s soaking it up.”
Part of the size is genetic. Justin is the son of former Buffalo Bills linebacker Carlton Bailey, though raised by his mother. They used to talk more when Justin was younger, but now he estimates he’ll chat with Carlton every few months. In the meantime, close family friend Dean Haynesworth has been around to offer support and guidance.
“It’s nice to have somebody to talk to and have some guy time,” Bailey said. “I can ask questions I wouldn’t want to ask my mom about.”
Haynesworth also made the trip to Kitchener with Bailey and his mom when the Rangers came calling. Originally, Bailey was slated to attend Michigan State University and play for the Spartans. But the combination of athletics and academic opportunities in Kitchener impressed the Bailey entourage so much so that new possibilities were already being discussed on the car ride home.
“Everything felt right for all of us,” Bailey said. “I was genuinely planning on going to Michigan State. Kitchener was an hour and a half away and I figured it couldn’t hurt to go visit.”
Last season, Bailey got in a couple games with Indiana of the United States League, scoring in his first game. That gave him a taste of elite junior hockey, but he’ll get the full-time dose this season in Kitchener. He still needs to learn how to play without the puck and anticipate how plays are going to develop, but it’s clear the kid is on the right track.
And it goes without saying he’s got a lot of prominent hockey people on his side already.
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