There was no doubt in Rihards Bukarts’ mind what he wanted to do when the Brandon Wheat Kings selected him in the Canadian Hockey League import draft last month.
Bukarts wants to play in the National Hockey League and in the opinion of the forward from Latvia, there’s no better way to way to get there than by coming here.
“It’s only one reason. It’s my future (plan) to play in NHL,” Bukarts said Friday when asked about his decision to come to Brandon. “… I can play in Russia, but I don’t (want to) play in Russia. I only have one future, play in NHL.”
From Jurmala, a Brandon-sized city just outside of the much-larger Latvian capital of Riga, Bukarts has an older brother, Roberts, who plays with Dinamo Riga in the Russia-based Kontinental Hockey League. Rihards Bukarts, who won’t turn 18 until New Year’s Eve, played for Riga’s junior team last season, producing 18 goals and 35 points in 62 games.
He didn’t know anything about Brandon when the Wheat Kings took him with the seventh pick overall in the import draft, but he got on Google to check out the city shortly after the draft. He also leaned on some of his Latvian friends for advice, including Roberts Lipsbergs who led the Seattle Thunderbirds in scoring as a rookie last season, and Edgars Kulda of the Edmonton Oil Kings.
Bukarts arrived in the Wheat City earlier this week and has gotten in a few skates with his new teammates as they prepare for the beginning of training camp next week.
So far he likes what he’s seen of his new home.
“I’m a little bit tired because the (eight-hour) time-zone change and I can feel it,” the 5-foot-10, 185-pound winger said. “… but I’m getting into shape and I think for the season everything’s going to be great.”
While Bukarts is just getting used to his new surroundings, the Wheat Kings’ other import, Czech forward Richard Nejezchleb is glad to be back and is aiming to take a leap in his second Western Hockey League season.
A 6-foot-2, 212-pound winger, Nejezchleb showed potential as a rookie, but was limited to 35 games by injuries, producing 11 goals and 24 points.
“I feel way better than I felt last year,” he said. “I’m more confident. I know the things and it feels good to be with the boys again. I know the team, I know the guys I’m playing against. I think it will be a little bit easier (than) last year for me. I just can’t wait till the season starts.”
Passed over in this year’s NHL entry draft, Nejezchleb got a boost from taking part in the Pittsburgh Penguins’ development camp in July and has been invited back to the club’s rookie camp in September.
Knowing what Bukarts is going through, Nejezchleb has made it a point to help the newcomer learn the ropes and he said he’s got goals of playing a bigger role both on and off the ice this season.
“I want to be a team leader,” he said. “I want to bring the team as far as I can, try to make the playoffs and go as far as we can. Just be a team leader, (produce) some goals, some assists, some points and lead the team.”
ONE-TIMERS: Rookies check into training camp on Tuesday, with ice sessions starting Wednesday at Westman Place. Main camp begins on Friday … Tri-City is bringing LW Taylor Vickerman, 17, back to his hometown. The Americans sent Vancouver a second-round pick in the 2015 bantam draft for the native of Kennewick, Wash., who had nine points as a WHL rookie last season.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition August 24, 2013