Like hundreds of young players across Western Canada, Lucas Cullen’s thoughts over the next three weeks aren’t likely to be too far removed from the upcoming Western Hockey League bantam draft.
On Thursday, May 1, 22 WHL teams will convene in Calgary to build on their respective futures, by selecting 1999-born talent from the four Western provinces and the western United States.
The captain of the Kelowna Rockets tier 1 bantam team, Cullen is one of several local players who have garnered the attention of scouts this season, and hopes draft day will mark the beginning of a new phase of his young hockey career.
Still, as much as playing the major junior game has been a dream of Cullen’s for some time, the 14-year-old centre is doing his best to keep the draft in perspective.
“It would be really cool to get drafted, but it’s not the end of the world if I don’t,” said Cullen. “That just means you have to work that much harder to pursue the WHL, if that’s the route you wanted to go. There will always be other opportunities…but at the same time it would be awesome to get drafted.”
Last week, Cullen and more than 60 other draft-eligible players were on display in Kelowna at the Western Canada Bantam AAA Hockey Championship.
Included on the tournament rosters were several of the top prospects for the draft, including North Shore’s Jordy Bellerive and Nolan Kneen, Zane Franklin from the Lloydminster Heat, and Manitoba’s Stellio Mattheos.
With more than 70 scouts in the stands—the majority from WHL and BCHL teams—very few moves by these young athletes escaped scrutiny during the four-day tournament.
For the last four seasons, Rockets’ tier 1 coach Tom Watters has seen dozens of young players come and go at the bantam level. He’s witnessed how different kids respond to the pressure and presence of scouts in the stands, as well as how seriously they regard the WHL bantam draft.
And while it may be easier said than done, Watters’ advice to his players is always straightforward—focus solely on their games and the rest will take care of itself.
“Typically those kids that can pretty much ignore the scouts and not worry about the draft, are the ones that show well and are likely to have the best chance,” Watters said. “Scouts concentrate on three areas when they watch kids—what they do with the puck, what they do without the puck, and what they do on when they’re on the bench. The scouts look for the total package.”
Watters believes Lucas Cullen fits the profile of a complete package and would be an asset for any WHL club.
“Luke has success because of how hard he works, he gives 100 per cent in practise and 100 per cent on every shift,” said Watters. “He doesn’t necessarily take the easiest route, he takes the one that’s needed to get the job done. He’s a great kid, and very coachable and I hope he gets the opportunity to show what he can do at the next level.”
Cullen’s dad, Brian, also serves as an assistant coach with the bantam Rockets and has watched his son’s development since Day 1. Like any father would, Brian wants Lucas to realize his dreams and will be there to support him, regardless of what path his career takes.
“I want to see him succeed, he wants to play in the WHL,” Brian Cullen said. “He works hard on and off the ice, his goal is to get drafted and you want him to achieve that.
“At the same time, we know the draft isn’t the be-all, end-all,” he added. “(Former Rockets) Shea Weber and Josh Gorges were never drafted and look at their careers. Work hard, stick to the game plan, and people will notice.”
If Lucas Cullen is drafted on May 1, he assures it will be one of the most exciting days of his young life.
At the same time, he also knows it would simply be the first of many steps towards what he hopes is long and successful future on the ice.
“Being drafted is a very good accomplishment and it would be awesome,” he said. “But it doesn’t mean anything unless you can go and show that you earned the right to be drafted and that you deserve to be there. It’s another step along the way.”
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A lot has changed in the world of hockey scouting since Barclay Parneta first entered the profession in the late 1980s.
The head scout for the WHL’s Tri-City Americans, Parneta spent last week in Kelowna, examining the some of best bantam-aged (born in 1999) talent at the Western Canada Bantam AAA Hockey Championship.
Like virtually all scouts will tell you, Parneta said evaluating 14- and 15-year-old players is far from an exact science.
“The biggest challenge is that kids at this age tend to change very quickly,” Parneta said. “Sometimes you’ll see a growth spurt happen within a few weeks, so projecting their size can be difficult.
“Also, consistency over the course of a year can really change in young players, maybe they don’t look the same as the last time you saw them. Players can change a lot between 15 and 17, so there’s no real science or art to it. You weigh it all out in your mind and do the best you can.”
While a player’s development at a young age is hard to predict, WHL teams have become much more proficient over the last decade in gauging each prospect’s progress. Because the bantam draft is considered the main building block for every major junior team, teams pour exponentially more resources into scouting than they once did.
With significantly larger staffs per team—around 10 people in most cases—Parneta said the scouting landscape has undergone a considerable shift.
“WHL organizations build their teams through the draft, so it’s really become a top priority,” he said. “The resources that are allotted to teams in the WHL have increased ten-fold in the past decade. Just the number of people, the amount of travel and volume of tournaments we attend in a year is huge. The draft is important and you have to be prepared or you get left behind.”
And for Parenta and hundreds of other scouts, there’s much more to the evaluation process in today’s era than simply what a player does on the ice. Strength of character, work ethic and general intelligence are all components that are equally high on the check list.
“There is so much more work now than just assessing what they do on the ice,” he said. “Looking into their background, what they do away from the game, their training, what their grades are in school…the type of character them and their families have. That’s all very important to our organization.”
Because WHL teams are more proactive than ever before in the scouting domain, it also means that there are far fewer secrets about prospective talent. Although it still happens on occasion, the so-called ‘sleepers’ who slip through the system and the draft unnoticed, are a rarity.
Everett Silvertips’ scout Jag Bal said technology is playing an increasingly important role in the scouting profession. Whether it’s the availability of basic online data, the use of Facebook, Twitter or texting, all teams are on an equal footing, making competition for talent as intense as ever.
“It’s big business for all these teams, and with the Internet, social media, texting, and good scouts all over the country, not much at all is going to be missed,” said Bal, who is based in Cloverdale. “There’s a sophisticated program called Rinknet where every player’s progress is documented, scouts can access it and track those players from anywhere. It’s positive for the players, too, in that there are so many avenues to show yourself. If you’re a good player, eventually you will be seen.”
Still, as far as scouting has come in the last 10 to 15 years, Everett scout Harley Love said sometimes a little bit of good, old-fashioned luck can come in handy.
“The only guarantee is that there are no guarantees,” said Love, who lives in West Kelowna. “You don’t know for sure how players will change over time.
“You hope if you watch them enough, do your homework and try to figure what players will do for you down the road, hopefully you make good choices,” he added. “It’s hard to project but we’re working on it.”
Western Hockey League scouts, like Love, will see the fruits of their labours when the league holds its annual bantam draft Thursday, May 1 in Calgary.