The Western Hockey League Bantam Draft is a complex beast, especially for kids weighing their options and mapping their future.
Yes, we are talking about kids as old as 15, some as young as 14 years, tasked with the challenge of making a major life decision with immense pressure weighing down upon them from every discernible direction.
On the flip side of the equation, WHL franchises are presented with an opportunity to brighten their future by adding a young thoroughbred to the stable. A miss step can leave any club reeling before falling behind in the annual horse race towards the WHL post-season.
The aforementioned shouldn’t come as news to anyone who follows major junior hockey in Canada, but what I’m working towards might surprise some fans and citizens in Cranbrook.
Before we proceed further, a key point in all of this is that when any prospective player signs a standard player agreement with any WHL club, they immediately forfeit eligibility to play NCAA college hockey south of the border, as the NCAA considers Canadian major junior hockey players to be paid athletes and not amateur athletes.
Back to the matter at hand.
I was fortunate enough to travel to Calgary last week, where I attended the 27th annual WHL Bantam Draft at the swanky Hotel Arts in the city’s bustling downtown core.
I caught up with a few other members of the media from varying Western League markets prior to the festivities. Over and over, I was asked the question, or perhaps provided with the statement: “So the Kootenay Ice are going to take Bowen Byram, right?”
In those moments, I answered truthfully, which was to say I had no idea. Holding the first-overall pick at the 2016 WHL Bantam Draft, the Kootenay Ice carried full control and power at the top of the board heading into the annual restocking of the proverbial cupboards.
Jeff Chynoweth, president and general manager of the Kootenay Ice, was keeping his cards close to his chest heading into the draft. Garnet Kazuik, director of scouting for the Kootenay Ice, also remained tight-lipped prior to the big day.
And who could blame them?
Having been burned by defenceman Griffin Mendel, their most recent first-round pick, who went 11th overall at the 2014 bantam draft before opting for the NCAA Division I route via the University of Denver, Chynoweth and Kazuik had every reason to not only explore every viable option but to also be very careful in doing their homework along the way.
Meanwhile, back in Cranbrook, town was abuzz with high hopes for the triumphant selection of defenceman Bowen Byram, a locally-grown talent having long been subject of conversation around the league and western Canada as a potential top-end selection, be that first-overall or, at the very least, well within the top five.
Eventually, the proceedings get underway and the clock begins to tick.
Kazuik calls the name of Okotoks native Peyton Krebs with the first-overall selection.
Just like that, the dreams of so many Kootenay Ice fans in Cranbrook are dashed.
Next, the Saskatoon Blades trade up from third overall, swapping places with the Vancouver Giants in order to grab forward Kirby Dach with the No. 2 selection. Then the Giants tab Byram in the third slot.
It’s only a matter of time before texts, tweets, emails and communication come my way, people dismayed with the reality the Cranbrook-based Kootenay Ice opted against selecting hometown talent — Byram — with the top pick.
A rapid-fire day eventually comes to a close for me nearly 12 hours after it began, with a story filed on Krebs becoming the top pick in Kootenay Ice franchise history since the celebrated Jarret Stoll (1997) and another on Byram’s calling to the Lower Mainland.
Remaining in Calgary for the weekend, I continued to hear the cries from Cranbrook all the way across the Rockies, easily droning out the hustle and hurry of a city constantly on the run.
“I can’t believe the Kootenay Ice didn’t select Bowen Byram!”
“How did the Kootenay Ice not select Bowen Byram?”
“The Kootenay Ice passed on a good Cranbrook kid. What a shame.”
Rather than celebrating the selection of a young, budding star with immense promise — Krebs put up an eye-popping 102 points in 27 games playing Bantam AAA with the Rocky Mountain Raiders — fans and citizens in Cranbrook were focused on the negative, bemoaning the big miss of Byram.
The first person on my call list upon my return was Shawn Byram, a former Western Leaguer himself, and the father of young Bowen.
After having spoken to Bowen on draft day, I was of the impression he was elated to be selected by the Giants. Father Shawn confirmed that to me, but with a significant catch — the Byram family is not yet committed to the Western Hockey League route. Bowen is taking plenty of time to weigh all of his hockey options moving forward.
Talk about a curveball.
Shawn goes on to explain he simply wants what is best for his son, both in life and in hockey. Sounds pretty fair to me. I don’t have a child, but I can tell you now when I do, I will most certainly want what is best for him or her, without question. I imagine most other parents out there feel the same.
In the interest of full disclosure and fairness to each and every team around the WHL, Shawn shared the stance of his family prior to the proceedings of lastThursday’s bantam draft in Calgary — buyer beware. This wasn’t about posturing or bluffing in order to land his son in a specific market with a specific franchise. This was about upfront honesty with all 22 member clubs, so each knew the risk involved with selecting young Bowen — the kid might not opt for the WHL route.
Let’s circle back.
Remember that story I told you off the top about another B.C.-born defenceman by the name of Griffin Mendel flying the Kootenay Ice coop? Heck, he didn’t even fly the coop. He never landed.
After going 12-53-6-1, having no first-round selection in 2015 on the heels of the 2014’s flame out involving Mendel, this is a club that absolutely needed to hit not just a home run, but a grand slam with its 2016 first-round pick.
You can’t go three consecutive years in the Western Hockey League — which operates with a very clear cut circle of life as players grow up, age out and move on to Canadian colleges or the professional ranks — without a first-round pick locked in.
Bowen Byram carried with him plenty of risk and according to his father, that much was communicated to Chynoweth and the Ice. That major asterisk no longer makes Byram the grand slam everyone in Cranbrook seems to think he was.
So can you blame Chynoweth, Kazuik and the Kootenay Ice scouting staff in opting for a more sure thing?
I certainly can’t.
I realize there’s animosity and varying opinion around town when it comes to the Kootenay Ice and the Western Hockey League. But let’s be clear — the Bowen Byram situation is not something that can be held against the club fairly.
At the end of the day, you have to look out for No. 1. Shawn Byram knows this and his family is acting as such, with son Bowen considering all of the options for his next step in hockey and in life. Is it really that egregious for Jeff Chynoweth and the Kootenay Ice to be doing the same, looking out for No. 1 and ensuring they have a high-end talent to bank on with the first-overall selection? I’d argue a vehement ‘no’ on that.
The WHL Bantam Draft is a complex beast. The scenario that played out this year with a rare, high-end Cranbrook product and his hometown team is an object lesson in exactly that.
Let’s not get hasty and abandon this team or crucify those making decisions before we have all the facts.