Guelph Storm forward Cam Hillis needed a few games at the beginning of this year's Ontario Hockey League season to get back up to speed after all the time he spent off the ice rehabilitating injuries.
The 19-year-old Montreal Canadiens prospect suffered numerous setbacks in 2018-19 — a torn MCL and a twice broken collarbone — that cost him half the regular season and almost the entire playoffs, including Guelph's OHL championship run and participation in the Memorial Cup.
Hillis first tore his MCL in late December and missed nearly eight weeks of action. During his third game back on the ice in February, the Enniskillen, Ont., native broke his collarbone and was sidelined another eight weeks. Hillis expected to be OK for the post-season and made it back for two April playoff games in Round 2 against the London Knights only to break his collarbone again, leading to surgery and the official end of his season.
Hillis would end his sophomore year with 22 points in only 33 games, and had to sit and watch his team compete for major junior's top prize with screws in his body putting the broken bone back together.
"Everyone goes through adversity and that was my fair share," said the five-foot-11, 174-pound Hillis. "It was soul-searching time, but I found positives to focus on every day. Eventually the time crept away and I was back and healthy and ready to go.
"I had a great summer training, kind of got back to my normal self, out there having fun, looking to improve every day to get to the next level."
Last season was a disappointing step back for Hillis, personally and statistically, after being selected 66th overall by the Canadiens at the 2018 NHL draft. After producing 59 points in 60 games as a 17-year-old in his rookie year one season prior, much of 2018-19 was spent trying to stay connected to the team.
"I tried to be as big a part of the team as I could, a voice in the room and making sure guys were happy, supporting them," said Hillis. "Off the ice I had to do what I could to help them out, but it was obviously tough. You want to be on the ice helping your team, it sucks that I couldn't."
Hillis, who was named captain ahead of his third season with Guelph, has had a bounce-back year and could be near the top of the league in scoring right now if the OHL season opened in mid-October instead of late September.
The 19-year-old right-handed centre struggled out the gate with just three points in his first seven games. But he broke out with a three-goal, five-point performance on Oct. 18 in a 7-5 win against the Erie Otters, and has kept the pedal to the floor ever since.
As of Thursday, he was tied for 10th in OHL scoring with 15 goals and 56 points in 38 games.
"I started to relax and focused less on points and from there it started clicking," Hillis said. "Me and (Pavel) Gogolev have had a lot of chemistry and from that point forward it's been kind of natural."
Storm general manager/coach George Burnett has relied heavily on a healthy Hillis, who plays on the power play and penalty kill. He sits third in the league in faceoff attempts with 857 draws so far and is on his way to over 1,500 on the season. No other player in the OHL has taken more than 700 faceoffs this year and averaged the same amount of points per game (1.47) as Hillis.
"It's a lot but it's good too because I want to be a centreman at the next level," said Hillis. "I want to be the guy in a key situation up or down a goal late in a game and you need a big faceoff win."
Hillis didn't play major junior as a 16-year-old, choosing to suit up with St. Andrew's College in Aurora, Ont. At the time he planned to play NCAA hockey at Providence University, but decided to give the Storm a try and decommitted to school, believing Guelph was his best path to the NHL.
"I wanted to prove myself against the best talent in my draft year and thought junior was the way to do it," he said.
Hillis, who has spent his past three off-seasons training under former NHLer Gary Roberts, believes the Storm (22-12-5) can defend their OHL title.
Guelph sits fifth in the always-difficult Western Conference, six points behind the first-place Windsor Spitfires. However, the Storm are eighth overall in the 20-team OHL, allowing the second fewest goals behind only the Ottawa 67's, who are ranked No. 1 in the 60-team Canadian Hockey League.
"I believe we can win," said Hillis. "There's probably not a lot of believers but you never know what can happen. I'm looking forward to the rest of the year and proving people wrong."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 16, 2020.