There have been plenty of highlights to this point in the 2016 Western Hockey League pre-season, but a quick burn through the scoring charts will give fans quite the heaping helping of international flavour.
Import newcomers and veterans alike have had their way to this point in exhibition action, but none quite as much as Swift Current Broncos pivot Aleksi Heponiemi.
The 5-foot-10, 141-pound centre and native of Tampere, Finland, is entering his first campaign with the Broncos after being selected 10th overall in the first round of the 2016 CHL Import Draft this past summer.
With four goals and seven points to his name through three pre-season games, the 17-year-old forward is paying early dividends and proving Broncos brass were wise to select him near the top of the import draft. After all, it’s pretty tough not to notice the new kid leading the WHL in scoring, even if it is just pre-season.
“I think I have pretty good ice vision, so I can pass pretty well and make good plays for our teammates,” Heponiemi told Broncos TV, describing his skillset, prior to the start of the WHL pre-season.
Heponiemi lit up the U-18 Jr. B SM-sarja as a member of the Tampere Ilves U-18 squad, leading his team in scoring with 25 goals and 40 assists for 65 points through 39 games. Those totals placed him third in league scoring.
From there, the pint-sized pivot represented his nation at the U-18 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Cup in Bratislava, Slovakia. Heponiemi collected five assists over four games as Team Finland finished sixth at the eight-team tournament.
“It was an awesome experience, but we didn’t play so well,” Heponiemi said.
With the 2016-17 WHL regular season drawing ever near, Heponiemi is doing his best to acclimate himself to life in small-town Saskatchewan and get comfortable with his new teammates.
“[Canada] is a great country and I’m happy to come here,” Heponiemi said. “Everything seems good.
“It’s very good to get to know the guys. It’s a little bit hard to speak English still, but it’s good.”
Heponiemi – who has drawn early comparisons to 5-foot-7 Victoria Royals star and reigning WHL Rookie of the Year Matthew Phillips – is eligible for the 2017 NHL Entry Draft and joins Russian defenceman Artyom Minulin to form the Broncos import duo heading into the 2016-17 WHL season.
Speaking of Minulin, he’s doing everything in his power to keep pace with his European pal atop the WHL scoring charts, racking up seven assists through three pre-season contests.
The 6-foot-2, 202-pound native of Tyumen, Russia, is entering his second season in Speedy Creek. The 2015-16 campaign saw the hulking Russian pile up five goals and 28 assists, good for 33 points in 72 games. The Broncos originally selected Minulin with the 29th overall pick in the first round of the 2015 CHL Import Draft.
Heponiemi, Minulin and their Broncos saddlemates next take to the ice when they visit the Lethbridge Hurricanes on Friday, Sept. 9 (7pm MDT). After closing the WHL pre-season on Saturday, Sept. 17 (7pm MDT) in Moose Jaw, the Broncos open the 2016-17 WHL regular season on Friday, Sept. 23 (7pm MDT) when the Saskatoon Blades visit the Credit Union I-Plex.
As thrilled as the Broncos are to deploy a pair of quality imports, the Moose Jaw Warriors aren’t exactly all that jealous down the road as their own towering Russian rips it up during pre-season play.
Nikita A. Popugaev has only seen action in one WHL exhibition contest to date, but he made the most of his ice time, registering a goal and three assists in a 7-6 loss to the Broncos on Sept. 3.
The 6-foot-5, 202-pound native of Moscow made his presence known in the Eastern Conference during 2015-16, tallying 16 goals and adding 31 assists for 47 points in 70 games. The Warriors laid claim to Popugaev at the 2015 CHL Import Draft, selecting him 22nd overall.
At the 2016 CHL Import Draft, the Warriors added to their Russian brigade by selecting 6-foot-1 defenceman Dmitri Zaitsev with the 34th overall pick. The native of Togliatti has announced his arrival with three assists through three exhibition games.
Next, the Warriors will clash with the Wheat Kings in Brandon on Friday, Sept. 9 (7:30pm CDT) before eventually closing pre-season play at home when the Broncos visit on Sept. 17.
To open the 2016-17 WHL regular season, the Warriors will welcome the Wheat Kings to Mosaic Place in Moose Jaw on Friday, Sept. 23 (7pm CST).
Around the World – An eye on WHL Imports throughout the league
Brandon Wheat Kings: D Daniel Bukac (Czech Rep.); D Ivan Provorov (Russia) – first game Sept. 9 vs. Moose Jaw
Calgary Hitmen: LW Andrei Grishakov (Russia, 0-1-1); D Vladislav Yeryomenko (Russia, 2-1-3)
Edmonton Oil Kings: RW Artyom Baltruk (Belarus, 0-0-0); D Anatolii Elizarov (Russia, 0-0-0)
Everett Silvertips: RW Mario Mucka (Slovakia, 0-1-1); RW Eetu Tuulola (Finland, 1-1-2)
Kamloops Blazers: RW Rudolfs Balcers (Latvia, 1-0-1); D Ondrej Vala (Czech Rep., 0-0-0)
Kelowna Rockets: C Tomas Soustal (Czech Rep., 0-0-0); LW Calvin Thurkauf (Switzerland, 2-0-2)
Kootenay ICE: D Nikita Radzivilyuk (Russia) – first game Sept. 8 vs. Prince George
Lethbridge Hurricanes: LW Egor Babenko (Russia, 0-0-0); D Igor Merezhko (Ukraine, 0-2-2)
Medicine Hat Tigers: RW John Dahlstrom (Sweden, n/a); D Kristians Rubins (Latvia, n/a)
Moose Jaw Warriors: LW Nikita Popugaev (Russia, 1-3-4); D Dmitri Zaitsev (Russia, 0-3-3)
Portland Winterhawks: LW Joachim Blichfeld (Denmark, 2-0-2); C Rodrigo Abols (Latvia, n/a); D Henri Jokiharju (Finland, n/a)
Prince Albert Raiders: LW Simon Stransky (Czech Rep., n/a); D Vojtech Budik (Czech Rep., n/a)
Prince George Cougars: LW Bartek Bison (Netherlands, n/a)
Red Deer Rebels: C Michael Spacek (Czech Rep., 2-2-4); D Alexander Alexeyev (Russia, 1-2-3)
Regina Pats: LW Filip Ahl (Sweden, 0-2-2); D Sergey Zborovskiy (Russia, 1-0-1)
Saskatoon Blades: D Mark Rubinchik (Russia, 1-0-1); D Libor Hajek (Czech Rep., 0-1-1)
Seattle Thunderbirds: C Alexander True (Denmark, 1-2-3); RW Sami Moilanen (Finland, 0-0-0)
Spokane Chiefs: C Pavel Kousal (Czech Rep., 0-2-2); LW Dominic Zwerger (Austria, 0-0-0); LW Ondrej Najman (Czech Rep., 0-0-0)
Swift Current Broncos: C Aleksi Heponiemi (Finland, 4-3-7); D Artyom Minulin (Russia, 0-7-7)
Tri-City Americans: RW Vladislav Lukin (Russia, 0-2-2); D Juuso Valimaki (Finland, 1-1-2)
Vancouver Giants: D Dmitry Osipov (Russia, 0-1-1)
Victoria Royals: D Marsel Ibragimov (Russia, 0-1-1)