The 2019 National Hockey League Draft is set to be an exciting time for Western Hockey League talent.
With 13 WHL players in the Top 50 North American skaters and three of the top seven goaltenders in the continent, there’s no doubt the league is set to feature prominently at the top of this year’s draft at Rogers Place in Vancouver, B.C.
However, seven rounds and 217 selections exist for the very reason that all a player needs are an in with an organization to show them they deserve to play in the professional hockey ranks.
From the past to the present and briefly looking into the future, there’s no shortage of examples for WHL players and families rising beyond their position on draft day.
The draft can often be a family affair from generation to generation. In June 1984, the St. Louis Blues used the 134th overall selection on a young Cliff Ronning. The New Westminster Bruins forward would go on to become the sixth-highest scorer from his draft class, totalling 869 points (306G-563A) while playing in 1,137 games and bringing offensive success everywhere he went.
Years later, his son Ty was selected 201st overall by the New York Rangers with his story just beginning in the professional hockey ranks following a promising WHL career with the Vancouver Giants.
As agonizing as it can be for players to wait until the seventh round, it doesn’t compare to how it was a generation ago. Before the modern adoption of the seven rounds in 2005, the draft was prolonged into as many as 25 rounds. The 1974 NHL Draft, conducted over three days, featured 247 players chosen, with the last selection being announced as Ron Poole of the Kamloops Chiefs. Though he’d never suit up for his draft team, the Washington Capitals, or any other NHL team, it may help current draft-eligible WHL talent for this year know that they won’t have to wait that long if they are chosen.
Late-round selections have helped to play a part in team success beyond their individual achievements. Coming off their second Stanley Cup in as many years, the Edmonton Oilers were searching for players to add to their success at the 1985 NHL Draft. They found it in the ninth round with the 188th selection, picking Moose Jaw Warriors forward and current Tri-City Americans head coach Kelly Buchberger. Credited with a Stanley Cup on the 1987 team, Buchberger was a full-time NHLer for the Oilers’ win in 1990. That was just the beginning of a NHL career that would span 1,182 NHL games until 2004.
Coming off a Stanley Cup victory of their own, the Montreal Canadiens turned to the Warriors in the late rounds of the 1986 NHL Draft. In the seventh round, with the 141st overall selection, Lyle Odelein had his name called by the then 23-time Stanley Cup Champions. Becoming a full-time NHL regular for the 1990-91 NHL Regular Season, Odelein played a role in helping the Canadiens claim their 24th Stanley Cup before amassing 1,056 games as a mainstay on NHL blue lines until his retirement in 2006.
The following year, the Calgary Flames followed the path of the Oilers and Canadiens, choosing Theoren Fleury from, you guessed it, the Moose Jaw Warriors with pick 166. A year later, Fleury was tied for the WHL’s scoring lead. A year later, he hoisted the Stanley Cup with the Flames after appearing in all 22 playoff games in addition to 36 regular season contests. Fleury would go on to post 1,088 points (455G-633A) in 1,084 NHL games, also winning a gold medal with Canada at the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City.
Late picks have also found success south of the 49th parallel.
Entering this off-season, it’s hard to think about the Tampa Bay Lightning without Brayden Point and the Vegas Golden Knights without recent acquisition Mark Stone. What’s even harder to imagine is how Point, a 40-goal scorer in the NHL last season, fell all the way to 79th overall. For Stone, he wasn’t chosen until pick 178 of the 2010 NHL Draft, but has since provided five-straight seasons of at least 20-goals and 50-points.
The same goes for two-time 30-goal scorer Brendan Gallagher, a fifth-round choice of the Canadiens in 2010. In addition to Odelein and Gallagher, la belle province has kickstarted the NHL careers of several WHL Alumni. The Canadiens used the 151st selection on Kamloops Blazers forward Darcy Tucker in 1993. A WHL and Memorial Cup champion from 1992 at the time, Tucker would go on to win two more of each trophy before beginning his 947-game NHL career in Montreal.
In 2003, the Chicago Blackhawks began assembling core pieces that would help the team win Stanley Cups in 2010, 2013, and 2015. Choosing Lethbridge Hurricanes defenceman Brent Seabrook near the top of the draft, they found another key piece near the bottom, taking Prince George Cougars defenceman Dustin Byfuglien with the 245th selection. Playing defence and forward, Byfuglien was a physical and offensive key talent in the team’s 2010 cup run before joining the Atlanta Thrashers and Winnipeg Jets for years to come.
Jordin Tootoo and Brooks Laich were late selections in the 2001 NHL Draft, selected 98th and 193rd overall; respectively. The two would go on to strong NHL careers in their own regard with each playing more than 700 games in a NHL uniform.
The Detroit Red Wings found success in the fifth round of the 2005 draft with Medicine Hat Tiger Darren Helm. Winning a WHL Championship in 2007 with the Tigers, he’d find immediate success in Motown as a part of the Red Wings’ Stanley Cup team in 2008.
With those names and many others permanently remembered on the Stanley Cup, it represents a success story from each WHL team, young and old, to provide hope for the next generation of fulfilling their professional hockey dreams.
From first to last, WHL players have influenced the NHL from past to present regardless of whether they were the last pick or not even selected at all. Now, the eye remains ever so focused on the future.