The cat is out of the bag when it comes to Zach Wytinck: don’t cross him on the links or you will get burnt. That is what to be expected when you win provincial championships.
But now the word is starting to spread about the rearguard for the Brandon Wheat Kings and his play on the ice as he’s coming of age in the Western Hockey League.
The Glenboro, Man. product saw his career-high six-game point streak snapped Nov. 2 in Kamloops during a 3-2 overtime win over the Blazers at the Sandman Centre.
“We got a huge win tonight. We all put a great effort in to get the two points, so I’m not sad to see [the streak] end,” said Wytinck, who’s previous high was four consecutive games last season.
It’s early, but Wytinck is on track to post another career year for the Wheat Kings as he welcomes more opportunity in his 19-year-old campaign.
With the graduation of James Shearer and the departure of Kale Clague at the trade deadline, the Wheat Kings needed someone to step up and fill those 59 points missing from this year’s lineup.
Wytinck is well back of the crop of blue line NHL prospects lighting the league of fire and he admittedly isn’t the second coming of Clague, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t impactful.
“Zach is a big part of our power play. He controls the puck up top, sees the ice well, has a great first pass with a decent shot and he finds the open man, which has allowed him to play a bigger offensive role for us this year,” said Wheat Kings Assistant Coach Don MacGillivray.
Even with his old golf partner gone in Ty Lewis, Wytinck has a lot of tools to work with on the power play.
“We have a lot of weapons on the ice. It’s not hard to rack up the points when you can dish the puck to Stelio Mattheos, a guy who arguably has the best shot in the league,” said the 6-foot, 170-pound Wytinck.
But Wytinck isn’t giving himself enough credit for his strong start.
Coming off a career season last year where he potted four goals and 19 assists in 68 games as a 18-year-old, it was certainly reasonable to anticipate much of the same from Wytinck this year, but he wasn’t satisfied with staying the same.
So, inspired by the strong season, playoff run and the vision of more opportunity, Wytinck did the unthinkable for someone with his talent: he shelved the golf clubs for the summer.
Well, sort of.
“I cut my golf way down in the summer to focus on hockey,” said Zach. “I don’t practice as much as I used to and I would say that I only average 18 holes about six times a week.”
Not only is Wytinck a great golfer, he’s one of the best in Manitoba. And that’s no small feat if you grew up in the same household as the previous provincial top dog.
Josh Wytinck, Zach’s older brother by eight years, dominated at the collegiate levels with the University of Manitoba Bisons. Over his five-year career, he won five individual titles and was part of 15 team triumphs, which included the 2014 Canadian University and College Championships. He also spent a handful of years with the PGA Canadian Tour.
“I have a hard time beating him now and he doesn’t even play that much anymore,” said Josh. “He beat me for the first time when he was 11 and I was in college. But he’s always been a great athlete.
Now, when the Wytincks say that Zach has dialed back the amount of golf he plays in the summer, let’s get it clear that he still tees it up more than the average person.
Despite barely finding enough time to only play six rounds per week, Zach used his limited time on the greens to work on his mental strength. The results are speaking for themselves off so far this season.
“There’s so many ups and downs in golf, you can easily lose your mind if you’re not mentally strong. You have to adapt to different situations and different shots all the time, so I think there is definitely some carry over into hockey, for sure,” said Zach.
He doesn’t feel the heat on the ice. A botched pass in the neutral zone from his 16-year-old partner Chad Nychuk wound up in his skates with the Kamloops Blazers’ leading scorer Zane Franklin (12 goals, 17 points) stabbing away in pursuit of a turnover and a potential breakaway.
Wytinck remained calm, kicked the puck up to what was now his backhand after getting spun around trying to corral the loose biscuit, and lofted the puck into the Blazers’ zone instead of giving up the scoring chance.
Later in the third during some four-on-four action, Connor Gutenberg had his feet swept underneath him from a loose puck, sending Kobe Mohr and Franklin off on a two–on-one.
With Wytinck left as the last line of defence, he stayed with Mohr, bending to one knee to break up the cross-ice pass.
The offence has always been the focal point for his game, but now there are moments like those where he keeps his heart rate down when the pressure is on.
Diving into Zach’s past, it’s easy to see why the blue liner who slipped through the WHL Bantam Draft in 2015 has adjusted to life with the perennial playoff contenders.
“It started when we were really young. I brought him out to my sports games and my buddies were cool with having him around. Playing against kids eight years older than you can be tough, but he always found a way,” said Josh, who now works as a pro at the Pine Ridge Golf Club. “Being successful and staying even keeled against me and my older friends definitely helped him out, I think.”
A natural athlete, Zach was dialling up aces in volleyball in Grade 5 when he was the only player to master the jump serve.
“I remember when he was nine, he got his first hole-in-one. He hit a five iron from about 150 yards out and holed it. That was amazing back then and amazing now to think about it,” said Josh.
Zach also holds a bunch of track and field records for his district and obliterated the competition when he won the junior provincial title in 2016 by a whopping 10 strokes.
Now, those skills from different sports are coming together and Zach is putting his focus into one sport for the first time in his life.
“As you get older in this league, you typically get more confidence playing against guys your same age and Zach has done that so far. He’s playing a bigger role for us and we really like how we can use him on the right and left side, depending on how our lineup looks each night,” said MacGillivray. I can’t say enough for how he’s played so far. He’s done everything we’ve asked him to do.”
It didn’t take long for Zach to jump back on the scoresheet, as one night later, he set up Luka Burzan on the power play in Kelowna, putting a successful end on a challenging two-week long western road trip.
“The boys were giving me a pretty hard time about the streak, probably because I give them a hard time about other stuff, but it’s all good. I’m just happy to see us playing well, building towards another playoff run hopefully,” said Zach.
Of course, if anyone gets too mouthy, Zach certainly knows a place he can retreat to and serve up some humble pie really quick, one hole at a time.