Robert Murray/WHL

Examining the history of the WHL Lottery

It was designed to be quick and painless.

This year’s installment of the Western Hockey League Bantam Draft Lottery was quick for all and painless for four of the six teams involved.

Over the years, the lottery has produced its fair share of drama and this year was no exception.

Each year, the non-playoff teams are given a varying number of ping pong balls, ranging from six to one. The team with the worst record this year received the most balls (six), while the team closest to the playoffs received only one ball. All the balls were thrown into the cage and one ball was selected to help determine the draft order of the first round.

This year, the Edmonton Oil Kings (22-42-6-2) had six balls and a 28.6 per cent chance of winning the lottery, the Prince George Cougars (24-38-5-5) owned five balls, the Calgary Hitmen (24-37-9-2) possessed four balls, the Kootenay ICE (27-38-5-2) claimed three balls, the Kamloops Blazers (30-37-1-4) carried two balls and the Saskatoon Blades (35-33-3-1) were the final team in the lottery with one ball and a 4.8 per cent chance of winning the lottery.

Only one ball is chosen during the lottery, allowing one team to move up a maximum of two spots in the draft.

The Kootenay ICE won the 2018 WHL Bantam Draft Lottery. Robert Murray/WHL

When the ping pong balls were drawn March 21 at the league headquarters in Calgary, the ICE leapfrogged the Hitmen and the Cougars into the second overall slot for the Bantam Draft, which will play out in one week’s time in Red Deer, Alberta.

“The last thing you want as a league is the perceived notion of having teams intentionally lose to get the No. 1 pick. By setting the lottery up the way we did, it doesn’t give every team a chance at the top pick, but it gives every team a chance to move up in the draft,” said WHL Vice President of Hockey Richard Doerksen.

The way the Central Division unfolded this season, the only chance the ICE and Hitmen had at a playoff spot was within the division, as both Eastern Conference wildcard spots went to teams in the East Division.

To the Hitmen’s credit — and maybe to their fault — they never varied from the mindset of gunning for a playoff spot until the math told them that they were no longer contenders.

The Hitmen played their best hockey in March, ending the season on a 5-2-4-0 run, hurting their draft odds and finishing with 59 points. The ICE were in the hunt for a the final divisional playoff spot for most of the season, but only won four of their last 23 games, sending them into lottery contention.

The drawing of the ping pong balls lasted mere moments.

Doerksen appeared on screen, welcomed the audience, introduced the participants and the sponsor, and then went straight into the brief lottery process.

Where the WHL can improve this event is that instead of drawing just one ball, draw all the balls to determine the first six picks. That would really create some drama.

The WHL Lottery will never have the grand allure of the NBA and NHL Lottery shows. There aren’t millions of dollars riding potential picks, there aren’t hundreds of jobs resting on the shoulders of franchise-changing prospects and WHL players don’t stick around long enough to have a decade’s worth of impact.

When the lottery shafts a WHL team, the results aren’t as painful as when it happens to professional franchises. Teams can only be bumped back one spot in the draft.

“There have never been any negative thoughts about the lottery. All our teams understand the concept of the lottery and the teams can’t fall too far in the draft,” said Doerksen. “They are still guaranteed a pretty good pick.”

There are certainly lottery miracles and slip-ups, but nothing as drastic as the lotteries in the pro ranks.

The Memphis Grizzlies had a 6.4 per cent chance at landing the No. 1 pick and LeBron James in 2003, but somehow finished second in the lottery. Because of restrictions on the pick from a previous transaction, the Grizzlies had to send the pick to the Detroit Pistons and potentially missed out on the Hall of Fame careers Chris Bosh and Dwayne Wade.

The lottery also swung a couple Stanley Cups in favour of the Chicago Blackhawks when they jumped up five spots in the 2007 NHL Lottery and took Patrick Kane.

The WHL’s lottery might not have the glitz and glamour of the NBA and NHL lotteries, but it still carries significant weight in the future of the franchises involved.

Carson Lambos is one of the players speculated to be a top pick in the upcoming draft, but there isn’t a clear-cut No. 1 pick like in year’s past when Mathew Barzal, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jay Bouwmeester were up for selection.

Hitmen GM Jeff Chynoweth, who was one of the dignitaries at the locked-down event and didn’t seem rattled after what was the latest event in a year where the ICE had the upper hand over the Hitmen.

The Kootenay ICE won the 2016 lottery and eventually drafted Peyton Krebs with the No. 1 overall pick. Brad McLeod Photo

“There was no frustration with the lottery. The ICE should have won it last year. That’s the beauty of the lottery,” said Chynoweth. “The lottery creates excitement for fans of the Western Hockey League. I think this system works for everyone, but I obviously would have liked a better result this year.”

Chynoweth and the Hitmen simply didn’t have the lottery gods on their side that afternoon in Calgary. The Hitmen certainly would have liked to pick at least as high as third, but them’s the breaks.

The coincidence of the pick going to Chynoweth’s former franchise that he ran for nearly two decades — and as recently as last year — cannot be ignored.

The ICE also got the better of the Hitmen this season by winning the opener 3-2, en route to a 3-2-2-0 record, punctuated by the ICE sweeping the Hitmen in four consecutive games in December. Before the four-game set started, the Hitmen sat fifth in the division, four points back of the ICE for the then-final playoff spot. The Hitmen were able to exercise some damage control by losing in overtime twice, but by the time the series ended, the Hitmen sunk six points deeper in the standings.

There was also last year’s lottery. In Chynoweth’s final season with the club, the ICE finished 14-46-10-2, six points in front of the Vancouver Giants for the best lottery odds. But when the ping pong balls were drawn, it was the green and yellow logo of the Prince Albert Raiders — the third worst team at 21-44-5-2 — that won the lottery and wound up with the No. 1 overall pick.

The ICE fell one slot back in the standings and nabbed the electric Connor McClennon. It’s too early to tell what they potentially missed out on, as the Raiders selected the Sherwood Park defenceman Kaiden Guhle with the top pick.

For the sake of comparison, Guhle has 14 goals, 25 assists and 39 points in 35 games for the OHA Edmonton Prep of the Canadian Sport School Hockey League and one assist in eight games up with the Raiders this season. Guhle skated with McClennon during the most recent WHL Cup, one in which Team Alberta dominated up until the gold medal game. In 31 games with the Northern Alberta X-Treme Prep of the CSSHL, McClennon racked up 26 goals, 41 assists and 67 points in 31 games. He also made his WHL debut with the ICE and has yet to record a point in five games.

By all accounts, both teams are impressed with their young prospects. It could be years to determine if the ICE got robbed of a championship-winning superstar. It should be noted that the Giants were also bumped back one spot in that draft and ended up with centre Justin Sourdif.

The great news for Raider fans is that the lottery is helping bolster a farm system for a team that just pushed the Moose Jaw Warriors to seven games in the opening round of the playoffs. By virtue of the Brendan Guhle trade Nov. 18 of 2016, the Cougars sent a package of four assets to the Raiders, including their first-round pick from this year, which turned out to be the third-overall selection. The deal brought a fitting bookend for Guhle, who was traded as a lottery pick in 2012 (more on that later).

The inaugural lottery took place in 2002 — sort of. There may have been one or two prior to 2002, but there are no notes about it, the league office doesn’t have any records of it taking place before then and the draft orders in years before 2002 synced up perfectly with the season standings, barring any transactions.

The lottery era started with a bang. Former Giants GM Scott Bonner pulled off a shocking trade with the Medicine Hat Tigers earlier in the season that landed him the eventual first- and second-overall pick, laying the groundwork for a lengthy playoff run.

In 2002, the Raiders won the lottery and the No. 1 pick, but traded down with the Giants in exchange for their third-overall pick and their selection in the third round that year.

The Giants also had another first-rounder on their hands, courtesy of the Tigers, when they sent Rory Rawlyk, Eric Clark; prospects Adam Courchaine, Mitch Bartley, Mitch McGillivary and the pick to the Giants for Phil Cole, Andrew Davidson and Warren McCutcheon.

The Tigers wanted to acquire a group of 19-year-olds for a playoff push, but fell into lottery range, where their pick came back to bite them in the end.

The Giants swapped the Tigers’ first rounder with the Raiders, giving the Giants the No. 1 and 2 picks in the draft.

“With Gilbert (Brulé) being a local guy, we wanted to trade up to get the pick. As it turned out, he ended up being one of the most influential players in our history and it was a move we had to make,” said Bonner. “If we didn’t get to pick Gilbert, I don’t know how happy we would have been with the lottery process.”

The Giants selected Brulé with the top pick and went on to see him rack up 87 goals in 165 games with the Giants. He was later selected sixth overall by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft.

Although the No. 2 overall pick, Dan Bertram never took one shift in the WHL, the other prospects they acquired in the deal kicked off a 10-year run to the playoffs that saw them capture the Ed Chynoweth Cup for the 2005-06 season and the Memorial Cup the following year.

“I had a lot of sleepless nights about Dan not playing with the Giants. After we drafted him, Dan told us he was going to play with us and his dad was a former player in the league, so we liked out chances. We had Dan and Gilbert in training camp together and they looked spectacular. But something happened when he went to go play for the U17s that year. He must have changed his mind,” said Bonner. “At the time, we were considering Dan or Devin Setoguchi with the second pick. But we heard that Devin was going to go to college, so we passed on him.”

Setoguchi went fifth overall to the Blades and played 255 games in the WHL and racked up 118 goals, 125 assists and 243 points. The Taber, Alta. product went onto play 516 games in the NHL with the San Jose Sharks, Minnesota Wild, Calgary Flames and Los Angeles Kings.

“If you look back at the draft you will see Carey Price and Nick Drazenovic went not too long after our picks. I still think back to how things could have worked out differently with our second pick. What we should have done was trade his rights to Red Deer and maybe Brent Sutter could have convinced him to stay in the league,” said Bonner. “All that being said, I still think the lottery was a good move for the league. If I recall correctly, there were teams playing their backups towards the end of the season to try and land a Jay Bouwmeester with the first pick one year. For the sake of the league’s integrity, they couldn’t have that. I think the lottery is an exciting event that teams and fans look forward to after a really long year. They get excited to see how high they can pick and hopefully land a prominent player. We were very fortunate to land Brulé from the lottery and I am sure there are other teams out there that feel the same way about their players.”

The Raiders selected defenceman Mike Gauthier third overall. Gauthier played five seasons with the Raiders and wrapped up his WHL career breaking the 300-game plateau by playing 58 games with the Blazers in 2007-08.

Bonner’s bold moves couldn’t be duplicated every year. The lottery didn’t always produce chaos. Many times, the team that finished last won the lottery and kept their pick. The Cougars held onto their top pick in 2010 and took Alex Foresberg. In back-to-back lotteries — in 2005 and 2006 — the last-place team’s ball got pulled first; the Chiefs chose Jared Cowen in 2006 and the Pats picked Colten Teubert in 2005, to name a few.

There are also a couple of occasions where the worst team kept the top pick — the 2016 ICE (Peyton Krebs) and 2011 Hitmen (Jake Virtanen) were two of the many — as the following picks were affected for the better and worse of the franchise’s intentions.

The Raiders haven’t been the only team to land on some lottery luck and Chynoweth is not the only GM to be slighted by the probability gods.

So often is the case that the lottery provides hope for franchises. It allows them to draft in the top four and hopefully strike gold with a prospective teenager. If everything goes according to plan, hopefully that lottery pick takes the franchise on a couple runs to the Memorial Cup.

On the other hand, there have been teams that mortgaged future players and draft picks in exchange for pieces to help an immediate run at the league and national title.

Similar to how the Swift Current Broncos purged a pile of future assets at the trade deadline this year, the Blades went down a similar route when they hosted the Memorial Cup in 2013.

The Blades previous GM, Lorne Molleken, sent five draft picks out the door and another player drafted in the first round in an attempt to stockpile as much ready-now talent as possible in preparation for the Memorial Cup.

Molleken stepped down after the Memorial Cup year and parted ways with the new ownership group, leaving current Blades GM Colin Priestner to pick up the pieces.

“We’ve been cleaning up the remnants of those trades for years now,” said Priestner.

The first big dent in the Blades’ system took place during the 2014 lottery.

The Brandon Wheat Kings pulled off one of the greatest lottery heists when they leaped from the third-best odds up to the No. 1 spot, all while being a playoff team that season.

One season removed from the Memorial Cup appearance, the Blades finished with the third-worst record of 16-51-2-3, just six points shy of the No. 1 overall pick. That same year, the Wheat Kings finished third in the East Division with a 34-29-6-3 record and advanced to the second round of the playoffs.

The Wheat Kings acquired the third-best odds back in 2012 when they sent Brenden Walker to the Blades in exchange for their 2014 first-round pick.

“(Walker) has enjoyed a real solid career with our organization,” former Wheat Kings GM and current Owner and Governor Kelly McCrimmon told Rob Henderson of The Brandon Sun in 2012. “He’s been a player that’s improved from 17 to 18, 18 to 19, and I think he’ll be a strong player in the league this year.

“At the same time, we thought that it was an attractive package of draft picks that was something we didn’t want to turn down and we felt was important to the future of our organization.”

Stelio Mattheos has racked up quite the career since the Brandon Wheat Kings drafted him No. 1 overall in 2014. Brandon Wheat Kings Photo

After winning the lottery, the Wheat Kings plucked Stelio Mattheos. All Mattheos has been able to accomplish in his career has been three trips to the playoffs, one Ed Chynoweth Cup, a 40-goal campaign and turned himself into a third-round pick by the Carolina Hurricanes last summer.

In the Mattheos Bantam Draft, the Blades settled for Josh Paterson, who they bagged with the 24th pick.

The lottery burned the Blades again the following season.

Back on Jan. 10, 2013, the Spokane Chiefs sent Collin Valcourt to Saskatoon for a 2013 fifth-round pick and their first-round pick in 2015.

The 2013 selection ended up being another future 40-goal scorer and NHL draft pick in Kailer Yamamoto, while the 2015 first rounder came back to haunt them once again.

The Blades endured a miserable 2014-15 season, finishing with the worst record in the league. Unfortunately, the Blades won the lottery in the few days following the end of the regular season, meaning the pick went directly to the Chiefs, who finished with 30 more points in the standings and snagged the first wildcard spot in the Western Conference.

“If you add those guys who we missed in the lottery to our roster, our past few years are a completely different story,” said Priestner. “I think that goes without saying.”

The No. 1 selection that spring ended up being Ty Smith, who posted 73 points this season as the second leading scorer for all defencemen this season. Smith is also figured to be the first blue liner from the WHL taken in the upcoming NHL Entry Draft.

“After all of that, I still don’t mind the lottery. I think it incentivizes teams away from tanking teams and no matter what, you still end up with a decent pick unlike the NHL or NBA,” said Priestner. “But that being said, those two guys would have definitely changed our history.”

The Blades missed the playoffs by three points this season, as their playoff drought extended to five seasons. But the future looks bright after the Blades landed lottery pick Kirby Dach (No. 2 overall, 2016) and saw him mesh seamlessly with other young stars Kyle Crnkovic, Chase Wouters and Nolan Maier.

The Blades can hope their young stars turn into NHL prospects one day the same way that the top-10 draft picks from 2013 Bantam Draft did.

After finishing the season with the worst record, the Giants sweat through a lottery, kept their pick and eventually chose the future Edmonton Oilers prospect Tyler Benson.

Behind them, the Regina Pats finished with the fourth-worst record for a non-playoff team, nine points ahead of the second-last place Cougars. A little lottery luck saw the Pats’ ball come out first and boosted them to the No. 2 pick.

“We talked about the lottery the day prior. There wasn’t much we could do; we were just discussing a couple things. Then, on the day of the lottery, I was in a meeting and totally forgot it was taking place. It wasn’t until a staff member came into the meeting and told me that we won the lottery, that I found out we won,” said former Pats GM Chad Lang. “It was very exciting for us to get the opportunity to move up in the draft.”

After a couple more scouting trips following the end of the season, it became very apparent to the Pats on who their pick was going to be.

“We knew that there was a lot of focus with Tyler and that he was going to go first,” said Lang. “After the Alberta Cup, we knew exactly who we were taking after Benson. It was easy.”

Sam Steel has been one of the best players in the league since the Regina Pats took him with the second-overall pick in 2013. Keith Hershmiller Photo

Lang and the Pats selected Sam Steel second overall. Steel was the top scorer during the 2013 Alberta Cup with six goals and nine assists for the Northeast squad that went on to capture the gold medal.

“It didn’t matter who he played with all tourney, he made everyone around him better. We saw a great work ethic, we saw him play a strong 200-foot game and figured he was going to be a great leader,” said Land. “We were right.”

Steel transformed into a WHL megastar. He won the Bobby Clarke Trophy following the 2016-17 season where he racked up 50 goals, 81 assists and 131 points. He has played 258 games in the WHL, scored 123 goals, 215 assists and 338 points, and was a first-round pick by the Anaheim Ducks in 2016.

Connecting on the No. 2 overall pick might have influenced the location of the 2018 Mastercard Memorial Cup.

“I wasn’t a part of the Memorial Cup committee, so I don’t know exactly what went into the pitch. But I think the Memorial Cup is excited about the military history here and the fact that the franchise is celebrating a huge anniversary. But I also know that they like to have the host team be relevant. Over the past few years, John Paddock and his team have done everything they could to build a solid team and Sam is definitely the driving force behind that,” said Lang.

After the Pats made their pick, the Cougars were on the clock and faced with the decision of going with the top blue liner on the board or one of several talented centres available.

Nolan Patrick was a star in his short time with the Brandon Wheat Kings. Brandon Wheat Kings Photo

Nolan Patrick was lingering, but there were rumours of him wanting to play close to his Winnipeg home, and the Wheat Kings owned the fourth-overall pick.

“You have to do your research before the draft; it’s not always about who the best player is. There are other factors that can come into play; some guys want to stay regional and some guys don’t want to play in the WHL,” said former Cougars GM Dallas Thompson. “When you have a pick that high, you have to be sure the player you pick is going to be a part of your team in the years to come.”

With rumours swirling about a potential boycott of a draft pick, the Cougars chose the left defenceman Josh Anderson from the Cowichan Valley Capitals bantam T1 program with the third overall pick.

“We liked (Josh) Anderson’s size as a bantam. We thought he skated very well and did a bit of everything. He was a weapon on the power play, killed penalties and was a physical player,” said Thompson.

Anderson might not be as flashy of a name as the guys picked behind him in Patrick, Brett Howden or Kale Clauge, but he was no slouch either. Anderson played in 206 games, earned 35 points and eventually turned into a third-round pick by the Colorado Avalanche. He was traded at the deadline to the Broncos and currently enjoying the longest playoff drive of his career.

Before helping out the Swift Current Broncos on their current playoff push, Josh Anderson was a key piece of the Prince George Cougars for parts of five seasons. Brett Cullen Photo

That meant the Manitoba product Patrick to slipped to the Wheat Kings with the fourth pick.

“It’s fortunate when you have the opportunity to double up and have back-to-back drafts where you can pick those kinds of guys, absolutely,” former Wheat Kings Director of Scouting told The Brandon Sun in March 2014.

The Tri-City Americans learned the hard way about drafting a player who isn’t committed to the league.

In 2003, the Americans won the lottery and kept their No. 1 overall pick and selected the Winnipeg native Jonathan Toews.

“He was the best player in the draft. He was the obvious pick and it’s been proven with his 11-year NHL career,” said Americans GM Bob Tory. “He was 14-years-old at the time and his family said he was coming. We would have done the same thing again if we had the opportunity to.”

Toews opted to continue playing with Shattuck St. Mary’s Midget Prep before moving onto University of North Dakota and never stepped foot inside the Americans’ dressing room.

The Americans weren’t set back as much as other teams that struck out on a top pick. Following the miss on the Toews pick, the Americans reached the Western Conference semis the following season, as part of a six-year run to the postseason.

The 2012 lottery winner made sure their No. 1 pick was committed to the program and it helped deliver them the franchise’s first league title.

The Seattle Thunderbirds picked up points in four of their last eight games during the 2011-12 season to leave them with a 25-45-1-1 record, two points ahead of the second-last place Cougars. Despite winning five of their last eight remaining games, the Cougars could not jump into the third lottery spot, which luckily got pulled first for the No. 1 selection.

“I still think the lottery is fair. It keeps everyone competitive until the end,” said Thompson. “Both times we were disappointed with the way the lottery went, but once you learn where you are going to pick, you have a month and a half to do your homework and pick the right player.”

Mathew Barzal went from No. 1 overall draft pick to WHL champion in five years with the Seattle Thunderbirds. Keith Hershmiller Photo

The No. 1 pick that year ended up being Mathew Barzal. Barzal captured the league title last season, was named playoff MVP, finished his junior career with 63 goals, 215 assists and 278 points, and is one of the favourites to win the NHL Rookie of the Year this season with the New York Islanders.

“I wasn’t personally at the draft, but we had our area scout Colin Alexander in the WHL office in Calgary. I guess he was our lucky charm,” said Thunderbirds GM Russ Farwell. “We were following Mathew’s games up in western Canada pretty closely. Once we got the No. 1 pick, there was no doubt who we were going to take.

“Getting that pick was huge for our franchise. Not just in the goals he scored and wins he had when he was here, but he built an attitude with this franchise and it rubbed off onto other guys. We became a desired place for players to go. We became a destination,” said Farewell.

After losing out on the Barzal sweepstakes, the two teams the Thunderbirds hurdled swapped picks and both ended up with NHL prospective players.

“We thought it was pretty obvious that Jansen (Harkins) and Barzal were the one-two picks in the draft. We saw an opportunity to move up in the draft and get the guy we wanted,” said Thompson.

After being selected second overall in 2012, Harkins went onto play 275 games for the Prince George Cougars. Brett Cullen Photo

Armed with an extra third-round pick that year, the Cougars sent it to the Raiders for the rights to draft the North Vancouver product Harkins. In 275 career regular season and 15 playoff games with the Cougars, Harkins registered 75 goals, 167 assists and 242 points, while turning into a player that the Winnipeg Jets liked enough to select in the second round of the 2015 Entry Draft.

The Raiders took home Brendan Guhle, who appeared in 11 playoff games with the Raiders and oddly enough, the Cougars. He supplied 30 goals and 73 assists in 233 regular season games. After being held pointless in three game with the Buffalo Sabres last season, Guhle supplied five assists in 18 games this season.

The Cougars weren’t always the victims of the cruel lottery gods. The ping pong ball bounced their way in 2004.

After finishing with the third-worst record of 30-34-1-0 and 68 points, a whopping 41 points more than the Blades who finished dead last with only seven wins, the Cougars leapfrogged them and the Thunderbirds up to the No. 1 pick for the chance to draft Ryan Kerr.

“We thought Ryan was a good fit with what we had going on at the time,” said Thompson, who was an assistant manager for the 2004 draft. “We later had an opportunity to move him to Lethbridge to bring in two older d-men in Jesse Dudas and Kalvin Sagert to help out a playoff drive.”

For a defencemen taken No. 1 overall, Kerr didn’t last long in Prince George and is one of the biggest swings and misses of the lottery era. After only suiting up in 20 games with the Cougars, he was moved to the Lethbridge Hurricanes, where he played 119 games before getting shipped to the Portland Winterhawks. In his final season, he spent one game with the Hitmen before moving onto the Spruce Grove Saints of the Alberta Junior Hockey League, where he competed in the Doyle Cup in 2010. In 211 games with four different WHL clubs, Kerr complied two goals and 30 points and never signed a pro contract.

“We didn’t have an opportunity to grow Ryan that long. I can’t comment about the rest of his career because we weren’t responsible for developing him once he left our program,” said Thompson.

The Thunderbirds landed the top defencemen in the lottery range that year when they selected Barzal’s current teammate on the Islanders, blue liner Thomas Hickey with the third-overall pick.

Hickey is one of the longest tenured back enders with the Islanders, having just wrapped up his sixth season following a WHL career that saw him pile up 177 points in 262 games with the T-Birds.

The Blades also pulled a solid player despite losing their top pick. After the Cougars made their selection, the Surrey, B.C. product Colton Gillies was sitting there at No. 2 overall.

Gillies appeared in 195 games for the Blades, netted 44 goals, 47 assists and 91 points, won a gold medal with the Canadian World Junior team in 2008 and was drafted 16thoverall by the Minnesota Wild. After logging 154 games in the NHL, he currently plays for the Dinamo Riga of the Kontinental Hockey League.

The lottery has even been known to favour teams that narrowly miss out on postseason play, too.

As consolation for going 0-6-0-2 down the stretch of the 2010-11 season, the Blazers became the first team to win the lottery with only one ball in the draw. They missed the playoffs by three points and were stuck in the dreadful position of non-playoff land and owned too good of a record to land an impactful top-three pick.

“We were trying to make the playoffs at that time. There was no thought of tanking to better our draft odds,” said Blazers Director of Player Personnel Matt Recchi. “I was out scouting at the B.C. bantam provincials when someone called me and told me we won the lottery. It was exciting to know we improved our draft odds and that we had a chance to take a good player.”

What made the Blazers improvement in the draft more exciting was that there was a highly sought after local product in the draft, Ryan Gropp.

“We wanted to take the best player available, especially if it was a defenceman,” said Recchi.

The WHL has a long history of hometown kids growing up in the shadows of the WHL arena and one day starring for the local franchise.

Jake Bean set franchise records with the Hitmen, Jordan Eberle recorded a career strong enough to have his jersey retired by the Pats and Trevor Linden turned into a national hockey icon playing for his hometown Tigers.

Sometimes however, it is not in the team and player’s best interest to draft the local talent.

“We like to take hometown kids whenever we can. We met with the Gropp family and we didn’t feel like they were 100 per cent committed to the league, so we went elsewhere with our pick,” said Recchi.

Jordan Thomson impressed the Blazer scouting staff enough to pick him over a praised local talent in the 2011 Bantam Draft. Kamloops Blazers Photo

The top three picks went as scheduled. When it was the Blazers turn, they sniped defencemen Jordan Thomson fourth overall.

Thomson went on to be a fine player by all accounts. He played in 205 games with four different clubs, recorded 66 points, never got drafted but did get traded from the Broncos to the Wheat Kings during the 2015-16 season and won the Ed Chynoweth Cup.

Peering back over the draft in hindsight, the two picks that followed enjoyed more productive careers.

“In self-evaluation, I think we got it wrong and took the wrong defencemen. Looking back, Joe Hicketts was the defenceman we should have taken,” said Recchi.

Hicketts went 12thoverall to the Victoria Royals and played 224 career games with the Royals, amassing 32 goals and 173 points. He also represented Canada four times internationally and was signed to an entry-level deal by the Detroit Red Wings in 2014.

After the Blazers pick, Reid Duke went fifth overall to the Hurricanes. Duke spent 311 games in the WHL, scored 115 goals and finished with 254 points. He was a teammate of Thomson’s during the Wheat Kings’ Memorial Cup drive and turned himself into a sixth-round pick by the Minnesota Wild in the 2014 Draft.

The Thunderbirds were next on the clock and pulled left-winger Gropp.

After seasoning for 62 games in the B.C. Hockey League, Gropp made the jump to the Thunderbirds where he where he chalked up 117 goals, 137 assists and 254 points in 258 career games — all with the Thunderbirds — along with 33 playoff games capped off by winning the league title last season. He also turned himself into a second-round pick by the New York Rangers in 2015.

Farwell credits Barzal as a key player in recruiting Gropp to come play for the Thunderbirds following the draft.

The Winterhawks didn’t need any help convincing their draft picks to show up in camp. They won the lottery twice in a three-year span and finished second the other towards the end of the 2000s to build up a Western Conference powerhouse.

After falling out of the playoff picture in 2006-07 with a 17-52-1-2 record, the Winterhawks retained their top pick in the lottery but saw an opportunity to double down.

“I wasn’t in the meetings involving the trading of the draft pick, but I know the team wanted to acquire more assets. The team thought that we could get more back in return by moving down five spots in the draft,” said Matt Bardsley, a former advanced scout with the Winterhawks, who now serves as the assistant general manager with the club.

The Warriors sent the fifth overall selection, their 28th-overall pick (Joe Morrow) and a fifth-rounder (105thoverall) to the Winterhawks in exchange for the No. 1 pick, 16-year-old prospect Michael Burns and the a third-round pick (46thoverall, Dylan McIllrath). The Winterhawks later dropped Burns after training camp that fall and he ended up with the Oil Kings. He managed to carve out a solid WHL career with the Oil Kings, Giants and Blades, appearing in 250 games, scoring 48 goals, supplying 63 assists and 111 points.

The following season, the Winterhawks playoff run hadn’t yet ignited, but picked up a steam after losing out in the lottery.

The Red Deer Rebels finished with 19 more points than the 11-58-2-1 Winterhawks during the 2007-08 campaign, but jumped over them to grab the No. 1 pick and Nugent-Hopkins.

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins was a star with the Red Deer Rebels long before he was a star with the Edmonton Oilers. Dave Brunner Photo

“It ended up being a pretty weird draft if you think about it. We were fortunate to get the top pick, but it was kind of bad in a way because we didn’t have him as long as the players that went behind him,” said Randy Peterson, who was the Vice President of Hockey Operations for the Rebels in 2008.

From the second Nugent-Hopkins stepped onto the ice at the Enmax Centrium, the Rebels knew they had a star.

“Brent (Sutter) took one look at Ryan during our rookie camp and said that he reminded him of Pavel Datsyuk out there. There was a lot of pressure on us to get that pick right, so we did our homework and I think we nailed it,” said Peterson.

Nugent-Hopkins was a flashier name and possessed more talent, but the Winterhawks got more value out of their pick despite getting bumped by the Rebels.

The Winterhawks received 128 more games from Ty Rattie, which included 94 more goals, 77 more assists, 171 more points, an Ed Chynoweth Cup and a second place finish at a Memorial Cup.

Ty Rattie recorded 40- and 50-goal campaigns with the Portland Winterhawks before joining Ryan Nugent-Hopkins in Edmonton this season. Portland Winterhawks Photo

“Rattie was a pretty special player in Portland. I remember seeing him play in bantam and loved the way he scored goals. He clearly continued that all throughout his junior career and I think he was underrated as a playmaker, too,” said Bardsley.

The Winterhawks now had a bonafide star in Rattie and also hit on deep-cut picks like Morrow, Taylor Peters and Ryan Johansen. They were still one piece away from turning into the team that newly named head coach Mike Johnston envisioned. That’s when the lottery came in handy one more time.

The Winterhawks and Warriors were battling it out in the basement for much of the 2008-09 season. The Winterhawks wrapped up the season on a 3-7-1-0 run, while the Warriors closed things out at 2-8-0-0. Those points down the stretch were crucial, as the Winterhawks finished the season two points higher than the Warriors and capitalized on those lottery odds by having their ball chosen first.

That ping pong ball turned out to be the missing piece in the Winterhawks roster, as they went with Derrick Pouliot over other defencemen Morgan Rielly, Griffin Reinhart and Matt Dumba.

“All four of those players turned out to be incredible players for the WHL and are all now in the NHL. We didn’t feel any extra pressure with the No. 1 pick. We knew whoever we were going to take was going to turn into a pretty good player. We just thought that Pouliot fit better into what we were looking for at the time,” said Bardsley.

Armed with those lottery picks, the Winterhawks went on a run that saw them advance to four consecutive WHL finals, highlighted by a trip to the 2012-13 Memorial Cup final.

That has been the beauty of the lottery since its installment onto the WHL calendar nearly two decades ago; the ping pong ball giveth, and the ping pong ball taketh away. Goals, wins, records and championships have all been altered one way or another by the lottery. You just never know what you’re going to end up. The lottery creates a memorable “what if?” moment for fans to discuss and debate for years to come.

One thing is for certain, the randomness of the ping pong ball symbolically syncs up perfectly with the unpredictable world of junior hockey that it represents and changes, all depending on which logoed ball rolls into Doerksen’s hand first.

DUBNetwork Forums Examining the history of the WHL Lottery

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    Tyler Lowey

    It was designed to be quick and painless. This year’s installment of the Western Hockey League Bantam Draft Lottery was quick for all and painless for
    [See the full post at: Examining the history of the WHL Lottery]

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