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Wheaties pick Latvian left-winger in draft

Rihards Bukarts

WHEAT KINGS Enlarge Image

Rihards Bukarts

With an early first-round selection, the Brandon Wheat Kings landed a Latvian.

Left-winger Rihards Bukarts, 18, was acquired seventh overall by the Wheaties during Wednesday morning's Canadian Hockey League's Annual Import Draft. It was the team's earliest selection ever.

Brandon Wheat Kings

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Brandon Wheat Kings

A five-foot-10, 185-pound native of Jurmala, Latvia, Bukarts is coming off a solid 2012-13 campaign that saw him score 18 goals and 35 points in 62 games with HK Riga. In 2011-12, he split the season between SK Saga and Kapitan Stupino, scoring 39 goals and 81 points overall.

Bukarts was selected ninth overall in the 2012 KHL Junior Draft by the Dinamo Riga, becoming the highest drafted Latvian in KHL history, four spots higher than his brother Roberts Bukarts in 2009. As well, he participated at the 2012 and 2013 World U18 Championships as well as last year's IIHF World Junior Championships, scoring once and setting up another in six games.

"Rihards is a talented player," says Wheat Kings' general manager Kelly McCrimmon. "We feel that he'll be a contributer on this year's club."

With today's selection, Bukarts becomes the highest import ever drafted by Brandon as well as being the first ever Latvian-born player. Prior to Wednesday, defenceman Ole-Kristian Tollefsen had been. The Norwegian, who was later chosen by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the National Hockey League Entry Draft, was picked ninth overall in 2002.

The only other top 10 pick in the history of the franchise was Finnish forward Sami Sandell, who was taken 10th overall in the 2004 draft. Other high picks by the team have included Jakub Sindel (13th, 2004), Toni Rajala (14th, 2009) and Jiri Jakes (14th, 2000).

Brandon's other import this coming season will be 18-year old Richard Nejezchleb from the Czech Republic, who was chosen 35th overall last June. The six-foot-two, 190-pound right-winger scored 11 goals and 23 points in 34 games for the Wheat Kings in 2012-13.

Canadian Hockey League clubs are permitted to carry a maximum of two imports on their roster.

The Vancouver Giants had the number one pick in Wednesday's draft and used it to select Russian defenceman Kmitry Osipov. With the fourth overall selection, the Prince George Cougars took David Soltes of Slovakia.

The CHL Import Draft will continue throughout the day.

Today's Import Draft caps a busy week for the WHL club and follows on the heels of Sunday's National Hockey League Entry Draft as well as as the unveiling of their 2013-14 regular season schedule.

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