Produced by the WHL in partnership with BC Tree Fruits, “Growing the Game’s Best Talent” is a multipart 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 2018 NHL Draft Class. Together, the WHL and BC Tree Fruits are “Growing the Game’s Best Talent.”
If there’s a reason why the Moose Jaw Warriors have kept their name the same for decades, it’s probably because “NHL Talent Factory” doesn’t roll off the tongue or fit easily on a jersey.
When it comes to developing players for North America’s top professional league, the Warriors have been one of the better clubs in the Western Hockey League and their latest player to go through that process, defenceman Jett Woo, stands tall next to those expectations that years of prudent drafting and strong Warriors’ teams have cultivated.
Ranked 20th by NHL Central Scouting in their midterm rankings for North American skaters Monday, Woo has long been on the radar of NHL scouts and the 17-year-old from Winnipeg, Man. has more than embraced the challenge.
“I just try to keep my game the same and try to integrate my game into the team and not try to change anything really,” Woo said of being recognized so highly on the latest rankings from Central Scouting. “I was put on that list for a reason; to change it would the opposite thing to do so I’ve just kept my game the same.”
As the Warriors have blossomed this season, sporting a league-best 38-7-1-2 record, Woo has been there every step of the way, learning and growing in a system developed by the mastermind that is head coach Tim Hunter. Woo’s journey is just the latest in Hunter’s coaching career that has seen players like Tampa Bay Lightning prospects Brayden Point and Brett Howden, and Montreal Canadiens defensive prospect Josh Brook drafted highly in recent years.
While he doesn’t want to give away any specific secrets for his pipeline from Moose Jaw to the NHL, Hunter has crafted some simple elements that he believes builders winners individually and as a team.
“My philosophy is puck possession, making plays, and playing at a fast pace,” Hunter said. “We do that at practice and our players, everybody that comes here, improves their game because of the way we practice. Right through the lineup, everyone improves.
“That’s what you want, regardless of the talent level the players has, is he improving every day? Is he improving monthly? Is he improving as the season moves along?”
After being selected fourth overall in the 2015 WHL Bantam Draft, Woo had a seven game audition with the Warriors in the 2015-16 season, tallied 22 points (5G-22A) in 65 games last season and has 23 points (8G-15A) through just 30 games this season.
The 102 games of WHL experience have challenged the 6-foot-0, 201-pound blueliner to be at his best on a talented blueline, continually drawing interest from scouts ahead of June.
“The game becomes so much harder at this level,” Woo added. “It’s the little things like staying hydrated, what to eat, and getting enough sleep. It’s those little things that are going to separate you from everyone else.
“That’s been the biggest change for me.”
What hasn’t changed is the feeling of being at the top and having opponents constantly gunning to knock him and his teams off their spot at the top. From his first year of Bantam hockey to his only year at the Midget level, Woo was a champion in all three years — Bantam AAA Tier 2, Bantam AAA and Midget AAA — with his Winnipeg Warriors teams.
“It’s nothing new to me,” Woo noted of the increased challenges every time the Warriors hit the ice. “Growing up, I was always on one of the better teams, winning a championship one year and having to defend it the next year, it’s something that I’m kind of used to.
“It’s obviously a thrill knowing every team wants to beat you.”
One of the benefits to playing in minor hockey, according to Woo, was more time to play with the puck and dissect where he’d like to make a play with time to make it. Playing at the WHL level is an entirely different story.
“At the WHL level, they have to be prepared before they get the puck to move the puck,” Hunter continued. “Surveying the ice and realizing where your support is and where the pressure is coming from is the key to being able to move the puck quick.
“That’s the area that Jett [has] really improved in.”
After a shorter-than-expected 2017 post-season, Woo’s focus is understandably on helping his team playing deep into the 2018 spring, ending Saskatchewan’s 25-year drought for an Ed Chynoweth Cup and earning a trip east to play in the 100th edition of the Mastercard Memorial Cup. It’s a tall order, but Woo is committed to making it happen.
While he’s also competing to make the Warriors the best in the WHL, he’s also competing alongside several players he’s grown up with like Ty Smith, former teammate Luka Burzan, and Carson Focht. The quartet won a silver medal with Canada at the Youth Olympic Games, while Woo also participated in the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge, IIHF Under-18 World Championship and won a gold medal at the 2017 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament in August 2017. Succeeding at those levels isn’t just an accident or a by-product of being on a good team, Woo is confident in what he does on the ice and how he handles himself.
“Every player takes a different path and takes a little different coaching to become a good WHL player,” Hunter noted. “Jett is a mature body, bigger body kid when we got him and very confident kid so he didn’t need a lot of pats on the back.
“He was confident in what he was doing.”
It’s all part of a growing hockey resume Woo hopes NHL teams will take note of when watching video, analyzing his skills and unearthing information on the young defenceman from now until late June. For the wide-eyed kid who once watched WHL players from the stands and never imagined his hockey career would follow a similar route, it’s pretty surreal.
“Now I’ve become one of those guys so this next step, going into the draft, is hopefully going to be the next step for me in my hockey career and I’m looking to make the most of it.”