Future Success Lies with MJHL Bantam Draft

By Derek Holtom
MJHL Web Correspondent

Decisions made at this weekend’s MJHL bantam draft – part of the league’s annual general meetings – will have repercussions felt for years to come. As team scouts, general managers and coaches delve in to the list of available players, they are in many ways charting the future of their respective franchises.

It can be a hit-and-miss enterprise when drafting a junior A player. Is the player good enough? Does he have aspirations to play major junior? Does he have another sport that he might opt to play in his late teens rather than hockey? These are just some of the questions bandied about around the board rooms of all 11 MJHL teams.

And sometimes, you don’t just hit a home run, you hit for the cycle. Take the 2013 MJHL bantam draft for instance. A few of the picks ended up in the WHL (with a couple winning championships), some became solid steady MJHLers, some opted for junior B, and some just faded away from competitive hockey altogether. And then there was Chase Brakel.

The Portage Terriers looked to Winnipeg and picked a true winner in Brakel with the sixth selection overall. He’s scored 87 goals for the Terriers over three years. He’s won a league championship. And he’s earned a scholarship to Cornell.

Terriers head coach and general manager Blake Spiller had the chance to watch that pick blossom from prospect to MJHL all-star, and knows just how important a draft can be to a team.

“Our scouting staff liked what they saw in him, and he came in and was a really big piece for us,” said Spiller. “He usually played on the right side, but we needed a centre, and he moved in there and didn’t miss a beat. And now he’s moving onto bigger things with a scholarship.”

The Terriers had five other picks that year, but none of them had close to the impact with the as Brakel – if any at all.

“The biggest discussion we have is whether the guy you’re talking about might go and play in the WHL, or whether they would be comfortable staying close and moving onto college,” noted Spiller.

“That’s usually the biggest discussion, because most players you draft are really close to being there.”

And that’s where GMs lean heavily on their scouts, who line the stands in arenas across the province and to see first-hand which 14-year-old players make the grade.

“It’s a year-round thing, and I really having sat down and figured out the hours, but this week alone I’ll be spending hours each day working on the draft,” said Terriers head scout Frank Harding. “I have a couple of scouts who help me out, and we’re going to have some meetings to get ready.”
Harding said there are a few qualities he looks for when putting forward prospective draft pick – and given Portage’s success during their last 10 years, it’s a mantra which seems to work.

“For the Terriers, we look for players with a high hockey IQ, and who are good skaters – those are the two biggest things,” he said.

And while scouts are all about looking ahead, they can also take a moment to look back, and take some well-deserved satisfaction when one of their suggested draft picks turns out to be a real gem.

“It’s a great feeling,” said Harding. “We don’t do this for the money, and you feel really good when you can help a player like Chase Brakel get ahead and fulfill his dreams.

“And he’s still got a lot of upside head of him.”

Not every top pick comes in the first round either. Swan Valley selected Linden McCorrister with their first-round pick, and while he played with the Stampeders as a 16 year old, his most productive junior years were with the Brandon Wheat Kings (guided by some coaches with deep MJHL roots in head coach David Anning and assistant coach Don MacGillivray). But the Stamps struck gold in the fourth round when they selected netminder Brett Evans, who turned into a No. 1 netminder for the Stamps.

Whatever the round, whatever the team, getting drafted in the MJHL is a huge moment for both the player and the team. Along with the team’s auto-protects, the foundations for future MJHL teams will be made at the 2018 MJHL bantam draft.