As difficult as recent years have been for the Neepawa Natives, this weekend is all about optimism.
With encouraging signs coming off the ice — the team’s season-ticket drive has hit 220 sold, already topping last season’s total — the Natives hope to add some key pieces for their on-ice future in tomorrow’s Manitoba Junior Hockey League bantam draft.
For the second year in a row, the Natives own the first overall pick after finishing last in the MJHL. The challenge for the Natives goes beyond simply picking the best player in the province born in 1999 as they also have to make what amounts to little more than an educated guess whether a player will play in the Western Hockey League or head off to another Junior A circuit.
“I think we’re always looking for the best player in the draft that suits us the best,” Natives general manager Myles Cathcart said. “You have to take into account all the guys that went in the WHL (draft) and where they went. Anybody can go and pick all the players that were drafted in the WHL early, it doesn’t mean they’re going to play for you or play in the Manitoba Junior Hockey League, so you’ve got to make sure that you’re getting the players that suit the Manitoba junior (league) and the Neepawa Natives.”
As an example of the uncertainty, 2013 No.1 pick, Morgan Geekie was also drafted by Tri-City in the fifth round of the WHL draft and appears to be headed there after signing with the Americans. Still, considering most players drafted by MJHL teams will go on to play two or maybe three years of midget hockey before jumping to junior, patience is a must for the clubs that will be choosing tomorrow. Cathcart believes that patience will begin to pay off soon, with a young core in place and more draft picks knocking on the door.
“All these players are coming up in the system that we’ve drafted for the last three years … so that’s an exciting part for us that we’ve turned the page and we’ve moved on, and I guess people do forget that we did a total rebuild of the team,” he said. “We started from scratch and now we’re starting to see the fruits of it.”
The Virden Oil Kings select sixth, but the Waywayseecappo Wolverines and Dauphin Kings don’t pick in the first round after trading away their top picks.