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 August 31, get the inside scoop on the incoming rookie class of 2019-20.
Team: Prince George Cougars
Weight: 165 pounds
Draft: PG (2018) Round: 1 (#9)
For a 15-year-old first-round selection in the WHL Bantam Draft, there are a lot of ‘firsts’ that they will experience between Draft day and their first WHL game as a 16-year-old. Excited and even a little in awe of everything during this time was Craig Armstrong of the Prince George Cougars.
Rewinding back to the 2018 WHL Bantam Draft on May 2, 2018, Armstrong had a lot going on. Not only was he focused on the Bantam Draft happening in Red Deer, Alta., but like many other top 2003-born players, he was competing in a tournament in Philadelphia, Pa. during the time.
“I was playing a game in Philadelphia and I heard I got drafted by Prince George,” Armstrong said. “It was a pretty exciting feeling knowing I got drafted so high. It was very surreal and exciting.”After checking off the Bantam Draft, the next item on Armstrong’s checklist was ticked off a few months later when he visited Prince George, B.C. for his first rookie camp with the Cougars.
“It was really cool getting to know everybody in the franchise,” the Airdrie, Alta. product said. “I didn’t know what to expect at the start but after getting to know everybody and feeling more comfortable, it was a great experience and I was happy to be there with them.”
As Armstrong entered his first year of midget with the Canadian Sports School Hockey League’s (CSSHL) Edge School Prep team, he faced the next biggest hurdle on his list: competing against older, stronger and faster players. While it was challenging for Armstrong given that he isn’t known for his size, but rather his speed, quick hands and ability to maneuver in small areas, there was still an opportunity for him to learn and improve his game.
“I think I was just learning to play against bigger players,” Armstrong said. “Knowing that I am a smaller player, I’m going to get pushed around a bit so taking that in and trying to stick with it throughout the season was something I learned from and then trying to stay consistent was also something that challenged me.”At the end of his season with the Edge, Armstrong tallied 28 points (12G-16A) in 29 games in regular-season action and three points (2G-1A) in three playoff games. Although the Edge had a strong lineup that included other WHL Bantam Draft selections, their results in playoffs were not what they had hoped for – another lesson Armstrong has learned from.
“We have to keep battling throughout the season,” Armstrong said. “We had a good team and probably should’ve had better results, but just sticking to my game and to keep pushing is the most important thing I got out of the season.”Next on Armstrong’s list of firsts was to play in his first career WHL game. He checked that one off on January 4, 2019.
“It was a really cool experience,” Armstrong recalled. “We were playing against Kelowna – it was a very fun night for me even though I didn’t get on the scoresheet or any of those things, but it was still really cool to play in my first WHL game.
“[The team was] really good to me, but I knew a few players like Brendan Boyle and Tyson Upper – they really helped me out a lot.”
Armstrong would go on to appear in four more games throughout the season, opportunities that gave him the chance to continue adapting his game to the speed of the WHL.
“The increase in the pace of the game was the most challenging part, it’s obviously going to be faster than midget hockey, so you have to be able to adapt and make quicker plays,” the 5-foot-7, 165-pound centerman said.
With four of the five boxes checked off his list, there’s only one more to go before Armstrong enters the league as a 16-year-old: making the Cougars’ roster.
“Obviously I still have proved anything, and I still have to make the team,” Armstrong said. “But just the opportunity to play in the league and with the Prince George Cougars is the most exciting thing. Playing in one of the best major-junior leagues in the world is going to be quite the experience.”