When a junior team wins, personal success often follows.
The Brandon Wheat Kings, who earned the East Division banner in the Regina hub in the spring, will have 11 players attending pro camps, an unprecedented total in recent team history. And while Braden Schneider (New York Rangers) and Ben McCartney (Phoenix Coyotes) aren’t expected to return to Brandon for their overage seasons, it’s still a significant portion of the 2021-22 roster.
Six-foot-three, 200-pound Vincent Iorio, the top Wheat King taken in the 2021 National Hockey League draft when he was selected 55th overall by the Washington Capitals, leaves on Friday.
"For me personally, it’s soak everything in from the older guys," the 18-year-old Iorio said of his goals. "It will be a jaw-dropping experience when you see some of the older players on the team. For me, it’s making sure that I’m listening to the tips and the habits that they do. What they give me is going to be really important for me, to bring it back to Brandon even and show the younger guys."
Jake Chiasson, who was drafted in the fourth round by the Edmonton Oilers, is taking the same approach.
"I know it’s pretty cliche but ever since you were a little kid, you grow up watching some of those guys and to be in the same building and in the same talks as some of the top NHL players is definitely surreal for me," Chiasson said. "I can’t wait to learn from them and be around them."
He noted that star Connor McDavid is there, and while he chuckled he didn’t want to come across as a fan, he’s hoping he gets a chance to watch him live.
The six-foot-one, 180-pound Chiasson won’t have to look far to find a familiar face.
Wheat Kings goalie Ethan Kruger found out from his agent in mid-August he would also be attending Edmonton’s camp. The six-foot-two, 183-pound overage netminder is from Sherwood Park, Alta., which is located on the eastern outskirts of the Alberta capital.
"I was a huge Oilers fan so it’s pretty special to be going back home," Kruger said. "When we play the Oil Kings back home, there’s a bunch of family wearing the Kruger jerseys so I’m pretty pumped to go."
Brandon’s list of players attending pro camps also includes drafted players Ridly Greig (Ottawa Senators) and Marcus Kallionkieli (Vegas Golden Knights), plus free agent camp invitees Brett Hyland (Los Angeles Kings), Nolan Ritchie (Philadelphia Flyers), Mason Ward (Detroit Red Wings) and Riley Ginnell (St. Louis Blues).
Ritchie and Kallionkieli missed Wheat Kings camp entirely as they stayed in the United States with their pro teams. Greig left on Saturday morning.
The six-foot-five, 215-pound Ward was acquired on May 17 from the Red Deer Rebels for backup goaltender Connor Ungar. The son of former NHLer Lance Ward left on Monday for Detroit’s development camp, the first of his career.
"I obviously want to make a good impression there and show all the staff and coaches what I can do and show them my skill and how I can play physical," said Ward, who is 19. "I’m just going there to learn and just make the most out of it. It will be a cool new experience."
The Red Wings will head to Traverse City, where the annual rookie tournament has widened its eligibility to include some young pro players.
He’ll meet at least one teammate there.
The six-foot-four, 205-pound Ginnell headed out to St. Louis on Sunday morning. After some practices there, the Blues will also head to the tournament in Traverse City, Mich.
"I can’t wait," Ginnell said. "I’ve been counting down the days. It’s going to be a fun experience. I have a couple of buddies there too as well, so it will be a fun time for sure."
He was contacted by a couple of teams the day after the draft, which was held on July 23-24, and settled on the Blues.
"It just happened to be the best opportunity," the 19-year-old Ginnell said.
The Wheat King heading the farthest from Brandon is Hyland.
The five-foot-11, 179-pound forward, who spent his first full season with the Wheat Kings in the Regina hub, headed to Los Angeles on Sunday.
The camp begins there, and then the team will then head to a rookie tournament in Phoenix.
"It’s an experience ahead of everything else but a small goal I set, just a little thing, is try to make an impression," said Hyland, 18, who was contacted on draft day by the organization. "I can’t really ask for anything else. I just want to put my name in the picture and hope for the best."
Brandon plays the first of three pre-season games tonight in Moose Jaw. The regular season begins on Oct. 1 when the Wheat Kings host the Winnipeg Ice.
On Saturday, the thought of heading to his first pro camp after skating with younger players looking to make an impression in Brandon had Chiasson in a reflective mood.
"It’s truly a whirlwind of emotion for me," the 18-year-old forward said. "Obviously my time in Brandon isn’t anywhere near over but just looking around at some of these young faces in camp, it hits home a little bit about the first time I stepped in here with my family and experienced a new experience.
"I’m just so grateful for Brandon. It’s definitely helped me come along as a person and a player."
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Can a first pro camp be compared to a first WHL camp?
MASON WARD: "It’s a little different but there are still a couple things that are the same. Going in as a 15-year-old in Red Deer, there are lots of nerves and I’m probably going to experience the same thing. I’m pretty confident in myself and I think I’ll do good out there."
BRETT HYLAND: "There are comparisons but there are also some differences. This is a pro camp obviously, it’s higher stakes. I came into Brandon trying to make an impression, but more than that, I was looking for a spot on the team. This is a little different. I’m not looking to make the team this year but just for the coming years so they can keep an eye on me."
VINCENT IORIO: "Oh totally. You’re definitely going to have nerves going into camp but having nerves is always a good thing. First impressions mean a lot to coaches and staff so I just want to go there, play my best and have fun doing it."
RILEY GINNELL: "Coming in, it’s a bunch of new guys and it’s an older group as well. You have to come in and try not to do too much, just play your game and take it one step at a time."
ETHAN KRUGER: "I think it’s a pretty similar situation, the first time going to an NHL camp. Going in as a 15-year-old, you’re going to be a little quieter, seeing what guys are doing and seeing what guys are like and kind of following in their footsteps. I’ll just go in there and try to enjoy it."