Produced by the Western Hockey League in partnership with BC Tree Fruits, “Growing the Game’s Best Talent” is a multi-part series highlighting the next generation of WHL stars set to embark on a journey pursuing NHL dreams. “Growing the Game’s Best Talent” can be seen monthly at WHL.ca, featuring a key member of the upcoming 2019 NHL Draft Class. Together, the WHL and BC Tree Fruits are “Growing the Game’s Best Talent.”
One step back, two steps forward. The adage can lend itself to anyone plying their craft.
In the sporting world however, it doesn’t always fit. That is, unless you’re Brayden Tracey.
With the Moose Jaw Warriors occupying a strong top six, the agreement was made that it would be best for the team’s first-round selection from the 2016 WHL Bantam Draft to spend an extra year in Alberta’s Midget AAA system.
“We were worried about his confidence and him trying things and doing things with the puck that no matter what he did there was no ramifications,” said Warriors head coach Tim Hunter. “Success or failure didn’t matter, it was just him being creative with the puck. Being able to go through those scenarios with the puck and working.”
The year proved beneficial for Tracey, who now finds himself in strong contention to be the Warriors’ fourth player selected in the first or second round of the NHL Draft in the past four years.
“Everyone knew I could do it; it was just a waiting process,” Tracey said. “Going back into the year in midget is tough, but when you look at it now it worked out. It’s something special for me and my family.”
Tracey’s 81 points (36G-45A) kept him firmly entrenched in the top 20 of league scoring while also leading all rookies in the three offensive categories. Playing on a line most of the year with Tristin Langan and Pittsburgh Penguins prospect Justin Almeida helped, but the WHL’s Rookie of the Year was no passenger.
His 23 multi-point games, including six multi-goal efforts and two hat tricks, helped the Warriors keep pace in the East Division as last year’s challengers faded, giving way to new risers. Tracey credited the growth of his confidence in being able to transition his offensive game from the Midget AAA level to the WHL so quickly.
“If you don’t have confidence in the WHL, you’re not going to be able to make a play,” Tracey said. “Having that confidence with the puck, being able to hold onto it in tough areas, when someone is coming at you, you’ve got to see the ice but it doesn’t come without confidence.”
Despite the immediate success, Hunter said the process for deciding how to handle 16-year-olds hasn’t changed, but that Tracey is a happy exception to the norm.
“That’s the conundrum, the balance of what’s best for the player and each player is different,” Hunter said. “We’ve had some great success with 16-year-olds here in Moose Jaw.
“We haven’t had many failures because we really looked at it closely and it’s all about what’s in the best interest of the player, developing the player, and giving him the chance to have success as a junior hockey player moving forward.”
Even while he was honing his game with the Calgary Midget AAA Northstars, Tracey was sought by Hockey Canada to represent them at the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge in 2017. Placed on a team with the likes of Bowen Byram, Dylan Cozens, and Peyton Krebs among other WHL talent, Tracey played a part in the team’s silver-medal finish.
Once draft day comes and goes, the next part of the process begins for Tracey, who will be vying for a spot in the professional hockey ranks. Just like he’s done with the Warriors, Tracey is ready to embrace the challenge of starting at the bottom of the ladder once more.
“I don’t care where I go honestly,” Tracey said. “It’s what you do after. You look at my linemate Justin Almeida. He went fifth round [in 2018], signed a pro contract this year.
“It’s going to be a special day, but no matter where you go, it starts over and you’ve got to keep working.”
An injury late in the season prevented him from being at full strength in the 2019 WHL Playoffs. However, another invite from Hockey Canada led him to the IIHF Under-18 World Championship where he posted seven points (3G-4A) in seven games. Unsure of if he’d be ready for the NHL Scouting Combine provided Tracey with some late-season adversity for him as well to push through.
“Battling through an injury like that, it was hard,” Tracey said. “It was a good chance and good opportunity for me.”
On the horizon for him is a return to a Moose Jaw for the 2019-20 WHL Regular Season, where he’ll be the go-to-guy as the Warriors aim to remain contenders in the division and throughout the league.
“He’ll really be on everyone’s radar next year,” Hunter said. “We’ll have a different team; he’ll have to carry some of that offensive load himself. Brayden will be leaned on heavily to provide offence for us and he’ll see a lot of the other team’s best players best efforts.”