It wasn’t an easy decision to leave, but Austin Wellsby does not look back at his Western Hockey League career with any regret.
The 20-year-old forward joined the BCHL’s Chilliwack Chiefs last week after spending the past three seasons with the Kootenay Ice, but says Cranbrook will always hold a special place in his heart.
“Going into my first camp [with] Kootenay, I didn’t even know where Cranbrook was,” Wellsby admitted. “It was a little nerve-wracking at first, but over the years, you grow to love the town.
“I had some really great times in Cranbrook, some of the best years of my life.”
As an overage player, Wellsby knew that it would be difficult to crack the Ice’s lineup for the 2017-18 season and decided instead to get in contact with his hometown junior ‘A’ squad.
The Chiefs are hosting the Royal Bank Cup at the end of the season and the opportunity to live at home while playing in Canada’s National Junior A Championship was too tempting for Wellsby to pass up.
The decision was not made without a heavy heart, though. Wellsby has a lifetime of memories from his Kootenay days.
“It [was] incredible, all the people I’ve met and all the memories I’ve made,” Wellsby said of his years in the Key City. “I couldn’t have asked for much better of a junior career. Anyone who plays in the WHL is lucky and I was definitely lucky to have this experience.”
Drafted by the Ice in the fourth round of the 2012 WHL Bantam Draft, Wellsby played a total of 164 games with Kootenay and put up 15 goals and 20 assists.
It was his leadership skills and commitment to giving back to the community, however, that made him a fan favourite.
Wellsby was awarded the ‘EKC Community Relations Award’ for the 2016-17 season and spent the end of the year as one of the team’s alternate captains.
“It’s always nice to give back to the community and do good things for the people that support you,” Wellsby said. “Of course, the fans are a huge part of any organization and they were really good to us in Cranbrook.
“It was nice to be able to give back to them.”
Although Wellsby’s tenure wearing an ‘A’ on his jersey only lasted 15 games before a knee-on-knee collision against the Red Deer Rebels ended his season on February 24, it was one of his proudest accomplishments.
“[Being an alternate captain] meant a lot to me,” Wellsby said. “Based on the seasons that I had before that, I didn’t really expect to have that opportunity, but when we lost [Zak Zborosky and Matt Alfaro], it was really special to be part of the leadership group.”
While he spent the last month of his WHL career in the press box, Wellsby believes that he is now 100 percent healthy and is ready to help his new team in any way that he can.
“I can be a leader [with the Chiefs] and I definitely learned a lot over the years playing under two different coaches [with the Ice],” he said. “It’s nice or maybe easier with some young guys to build them into a role and be a part of their development as well.”
The list of people Wellsby has to thank in Cranbrook for helping him become the man he is today, is lengthy.
“I was really lucky to have incredible billets, Frank and Isabel, [who] were amazing from day one,” he said. “My teammates, of course [we’re great] and I had a lot of good times with them.
“I was lucky to have good coaches along the way too [and] the fans were incredible … it was nice to be part of that community.”
With his WHL days now behind him, Wellsby is focused on his final junior season with the Chiefs, but also knows that his journey in life is just beginning.
“I have four years of school paid for through the WHL [so] I plan to use that,” he said. “I’m not sure where I’m going to go yet, but it’s amazing to have that under my belt already.”
He will also always keep an eye back on the town that helped raised him and a team that he thinks has a very bright future.
“[The future of the Ice] is looking really good with the whole new look,” he said. “I’m very excited for them and they obviously have some really good prospects and it looks like it will be a strong team maybe this year or next year. I want to wish them the best of luck.”
Wellsby and the Chiefs will kick off their season on September 8 in Prince George and will end in Chilliwack with the RBC Cup from May 12 to 20.