WHL Next Generation is a 22-part series highlighting a handful of the future stars of the Western Hockey League. From first-round bantam draft picks to later-blooming selections, get to know the names of players set to establish themselves as the newest crop of exciting talent to grace the WHL. From August 1 through September 11, get the inside scoop on the incoming crew of 16-year-olds.
Jackson van de Leest can’t wait to get back on the ice for the Calgary Hitmen after his first stint with the club early last season.
The Hitmen’s first round pick, 16th overall in the 2016 WHL Bantam Draft got a good look at what it’s like to play in the WHL after a long seven-game run with the Hitmen early in the season.
“Those games really just helped me to see the level that I really needed to be at to play in the WHL with the Calgary Hitmen,” van de Leest said. “They also were good for feeling out exactly what I need to work on, what I need to do to be at that level.”
Normally, 15-year-old players are only allowed to play five WHL games, but a unique set of circumstances led to the League granting special permission for van de Leest to play an extra two early-season games with the Hitmen while other players were at NHL camps.
The towering, 6-foot-6, 194-pound prospect seemed to have no trouble stepping into action on the Hitmen’s blue line.
While van de Leest didn’t really pile up the points in his stint with the club – he posted one assist in seven regular season games – the Kelowna product’s contributions on the defensive side of things were more than enough to impress former Hitmen head coach Mark French.
“Well, I think if we weren’t restricted by the rules he’d be playing a lot more,” French told Daniel Austin of the Calgary Sun after van de Leest’s seventh game in December.
For his part, van de Leest said he was happy to get the recognition, but he’s proud of what he was able to accomplish this year.
“It gives me a little bit of a boost of confidence to be regarded as a player who could have made the jump earlier. It’s obviously something that you want to hear, knowing that your hard work is paying off,” van de Leest said of French’s comments.
“I, myself, would have loved to spend more time in the WHL than I did last year but I’m grateful for every opportunity I got and I’m very proud of the amount of games that I was able to play.”
— Calgary Hitmen (@WHLHitmen) July 31, 2017
Van de Leest, who was drafted out of Yale Hockey Academy’s Bantam Prep program, played his first year of Midget hockey with the CSSHL’s Okanagan Hockey Academy White Prep team where he posted 19 points (3G, 16A) in 29 games.
“The academies are really good, I feel, personally, for getting you on the ice every day. That was one of the big developmental things for me. I was on the ice every day, I was in the gym almost every day. You get a feel for what hockey’s like outside of minor hockey,” van de Leest said.
“That was really good for me for getting into that mindset of what I need to do to progress to the next level. I owe a lot to the academies. They were a great choice for me.”
In addition to his play in the CSSHL, van de Leest also suited up for five games with the Penticton Vees of the BCHL this past season and was a key part of the silver medal-winning Team B.C. at the 2016-17 U16 Western Canada Challenge Cup.
The former CSSBHL Top Defenseman award winner was also selected to participate in this year’s Hockey Canada U17 Summer Showcase.
“It’s an honour, obviously, to be able to represent your country on any stage,” van de Leest said. “U17’s just a start, obviously we’re working towards bigger and better, but I’m proud of everything that I’ve done to get there.”
Still, the 16-year-old shutdown defenseman has been hard at work over the past season to get himself into a position to lock down a full-time roster spot when training camp rolls around.
“With the games last year, that was just to kind of get my toe in the door. I was able to kind of establish myself and see what it’s like,” he said. “I’m hoping this year I’m really going to attack the season right away.”
Van de Leest and the Calgary Hitmen open the 2017 WHL Preseason on Friday, September 1, when they visit the Red Deer Rebels at the Enmax Centrium in Red Deer. Lone home action for van de Leest and the Hitmen is slated for Friday, September 8, when the Edmonton Oil Kings visit Calgary’s WinSport Arena.