There are few events for an elite young hockey player in Western Canada that combine excitement and trepidation as effectively as the Western Hockey League bantam draft.
The league’s annual draft takes place today in Calgary, and local hockey players born in 1999, who have dreamed for years of playing in the WHL, are waiting on pins and needles for a clue of what their future in the game might have in store for them.
"I’m pretty nervous, but it’s pretty exciting at the same time," Brandonite Connor Gutenberg said.
"We’ve worked for it the past year and a bit, so it’s exciting that it’s almost here."
Along with Brandon Bantam AAA Wheat Kings teammate Sam Huston, Gutenberg is one of Westman’s top candidates to be chosen in the draft. Roblin defenceman Josh Brook is expected to be an early pick, going in the first round, but beyond that the possibilities are endless for the other local prospects.
"It is nerve wracking," defenceman Cody Thompson of Killarney said. "It’s crazy that we’re so young and getting drafted at this age, but it’s a big part (of potentially playing in the WHL) so I’m just trying to not make too much of it."
While the draft is a major milestone for hockey hopefuls, it is far from an exact science when it comes to identifying 14- and 15-year-olds who might become WHL players a year or two down the road.
Some high picks never pan out, while Brandonites Matt Calvert and Mike Ferland are two recent examples of players who had great WHL success and eventually went on to pro careers after being passed over entirely in the bantam draft.
The leading scorer on the Bantam Wheat Kings this season with 20 goals and 20 assists in 32 games, Gutenberg said he’s going into the draft with no expectations of what might happen. Listed at 5-foot-8 and 133 pounds, the centre does not have the size of some of the other candidates, but scouts are impressed with his skating and his all-around skill level, something he said he’s been working hard to improve.
"I try to play a good two-way game," he said.
Thompson, on the other hand, is already 6-foot-3 and 190 pounds, and the defenceman has focused on developing his skill and his skating to go along with his size. He’s gotten some tutoring from fellow Killarney native Reid Gow, the captain of the WHL’s Spokane Chiefs, learning about the work and commitment necessary to play in the league.
"I trained with (Gow) all summer last year," said Thompson, who had eight goals, 11 assists and 44 penalty minutes in 29 games with the Southwest Bantam AAA Cougars this season. "He’s a big mentor."
The Brandon Wheat Kings hold the first overall pick in today’s draft, which begins at 9:30 a.m. (Central), with the first round to be webcast on whl.ca. The Sun’s annual survey of WHL scouts rated Winnipeg centre Stelio Mattheos as the top prospect.
ONE-TIMERS: The Wheat Kings have never chosen first overall, with their highest picks being in the No.2 slot in 1991, ’92 and ’93 when they selected Colin Cloutier, Wade Redden and Darren Van Oene, respectively … Brandon has one pick in each round of today’s draft, with the exceptions of the fifth round when they choose twice, and the seventh round when they have no picks.