No doubt about it, Abbotsford is coming into its own as a hockey town.
The signs, like cherry blossoms in the spring, are all around – from the host of Abbotsford Minor Hockey products making an impact in the junior and minor pro ranks, to the thousands of fans celebrating at the intersection of South Fraser Way and Gladwin Rd. after each Vancouver Canucks playoff victory.
Thursday represented a memorable moment in this city’s hockey history, as six young prospects were picked in the Western Hockey League draft. It’s the second-largest bantam draft class for the local minor hockey association, trailing only the eight-member class of 2006.
“It’s huge,” said Francis Bamford, captain of the Abbotsford Tier 1 bantam Hawks and one of the half-dozen draftees. “It just shows that Abbotsford has a very good development program in minor hockey, and a lot of kids here love the sport.”
Leading the draft day parade was Jake Virtanen. The Calgary Hitmen snapped up the power-forward prodigy with the first overall selection.
Virtanen made a little bit of history, as he became the first Abbotsford prospect to be picked No. 1 overall. The previous record was held by Geordie Wudrick, who was picked second by the Swift Current Broncos in 2005.
The second local prospect off the board was Ryan Simpson, who was picked in the second round by the Vancouver Giants. The hard-nosed centre was ecstatic the Giants used such a high pick on him, and that he has an opportunity to play so close to home.
“I was expecting maybe third or fourth round,” he said. “It’s a good feeling, for sure.”
Left winger Mitch Skapski (fourth round, Portland Winterhawks) and defenceman Kyle Clayton (fifth round, Spokane Chiefs) were the next local players to be picked, and both have family connections to the WHL. Skapski’s older sibling Mackenzie is a goaltending prospect with the Kootenay Ice, while Clayton has been preceded to the WHL by brother Chase, a forward with the Hitmen.
Skapski relishes the prospect of trying to score against his brother one day.
“Five-hole, I guess, or glove hand,” he said with a grin, when asked how he’d go about getting the puck past Mackenzie.
The younger Clayton had a more unfriendly idea of how his first on-ice meeting with Chase might go.
“Maybe I’ll get to fight him, go at it a bit,” he said with a chuckle. “We’ve never played against each other competitively.”
Jared Virtanen, Jake’s cousin, was selected in the eighth round by Kootenay, capping a great day for the family.
“I was just going on the ice for hockey practice, and the goalie instructor told me I got drafted,” the right winger said. “I was pretty excited.”
Bamford rounded out the Abby draft class – the Prince George Cougars snagged the diminutive centre in the 11th round.
“I’m excited a WHL team is interested and took a chance on me,” he enthused. “I’m excited to go to camp this summer and prove myself.”
• Draft day also represented a feather in the cap for the hockey academy at Yale Secondary, as four of the six local draftees – the Virtanens, Simpson and Clayton – are among its members.
• The WHL draft saw major junior teams select athletes born in 1996. Players from the four western Canadian provinces and 20 American states were eligible.
• Scouting reports on the local draftees are as follows:
Ht: 5’11” Wt: 164 lbs.
Pos: Left wing
Stats: 62 games played, 70 goals, 49 assists, 119 points
Drafted: 1st overall, Calgary Hitmen
Coach’s corner (with Abbotsford bantam Tier 1 Hawks coach Troy Campbell): “He has a big-league shot already, and can score from any angle. And he’s by far the best skater in his age group. Nobody even comes close.”
Ht: 6’2″ Wt: 170 lbs.
Stats: 51 games played, 13 goals, 25 assists, 38 points
Drafted: 35th overall, Vancouver Giants
Coach’s corner: “He’s a big power forward. I’d compare him to a Joel Otto type – a shut-down guy who can contribute offensively.”
Ht: 5’7″ Wt: 140 lbs.
Pos: Left wing
Stats: 60 games played, 35 goals, 57 assists, 92 points
Drafted: 86th overall, Portland Winterhawks
Coach’s corner: “He’s a gritty, old-school, hard-working player who likes to mix it up. He’s got a great work ethic and competes very hard, game in and game out.”
Ht: 6’1″ Wt: 160 lbs.
Stats: 61 games played, 2 goals, 25 assists, 27 points
Drafted: 107th overall, Spokane Chiefs
Coach’s corner: Calgary Hitmen centre Chase Clayton is Kyle’s older brother, but Campbell says they’re very different players. “Kyle’s going to be a really big guy, and he’ll be a hard-nosed D in the WHL. But they both have that nice stride. Chase is a dominant skater, and Kyle is as well.”
Ht: 5’9″ Wt: 160 lbs.
Pos: Right wing
Stats: 62 games played, 22 goals, 50 assists, 72 points
Drafted: 171st overall, Kootenay Ice
Coach’s corner: “He’s a small guy . . . but he’s growing every time I see him. I keep telling scouts that he could be the pick of the draft, because of the potential he has. He’s a very intelligent player, with soft hands.”
Ht: 5’6″ Wt: 139 lbs.
Stats: 57 games played, 37 goals, 40 assists, 77 points
Drafted: 230th overall, Prince George Cougars
Coach’s corner: Bamford was the Hawks captain, and Campbell said he led by example. “He was a quiet leader who did more with actions than with words. He’s a tenacious little guy who skates very well.”
Recent WHL draftees from Abbotsford:
2004 – D Chris Ickert, F Trent Fussi, D Mark Isherwood
2005 – F Geordie Wudrick, G Ian Curtis, F Clayton Cumiskey, D Spencer Lockert, D Brendan Nadolny
2006 – F Riley Boychuk, F Kellan Tochkin, G Nathan Lieuwen, D Jeff Regier, F Ryan Kowalski, D Scott Ramsay, D Joel Rogers, F Mike Cassivi
2007 – F Brandon Regier, C Grayson Downing, D Brett Kolins, C Sahir Gill
2008 – F Joe Kornelsen, D Tyler Pavkovich
2009 – F Jason Siebert, F Dalton Sward, F Chase Clayton, G Mackenzie Skapski
2010 – G Alex Orth, F Austin Ferguson