On April 22 the Portland Winterhawks made 11 selections in the 2020 WHL Bantam Draft.
With their fourth selection, and fifth-round pick, the Winterhawks drafted Tanner Bruender.
All selections in the draft have meaning, but the 110th overall pick meant just a little more to the hometown team.
Bruender grew up in Portland and played seven years with the Winterhawks Junior Hockey organization.
“It was when I was around five my dad took me to my first Portland Winterhawks game,” Bruender said. Tanner was instantly hooked and began skating at the Winterhawks Skating Center in Beaverton shortly afterwards. For several years his family had season tickets, so the passion for hockey grew with every game he attended.
The 5-foot-11, 156 pounds, 14-year-old (2005 birth year) forward recalls being at the game watching Nic Petan and Oliver Bjorkstrand play. “Ever since then, I fell in love with the game and wanted to play. The Winterhawks were so much fun to watch.”
During his time with the Winterhawks Junior Hockey teams, Bruender and his teammates “made memories when we went up to Canada. We went up there for tournaments over a weekend or so. I’m still in contact with most of them.”
Two years ago the Bruender family moved to Minnesota to help Tanner continue to grow in his development.
The move was a bittersweet one though as Tanner’s mom — Alea Bruender — mentioned, “Some of our best years have been in Portland. Tanner got to play with the same group of kids for four years in a row. That was phenomenal for developing him and building relationships.”
While Minnesota boasts countless more rinks, and the opportunity for pond hockey in the winter, the Portland climate did not stop Bruender and his friends from trying to play outdoors. In January 2017, when the winter was cold enough, they were able to get on a frozen pond in Tualatin. Alea recalls that the police “had to get them off the ice, a little adjustment compared to Minnesota.”
Zach Bruender — Tanner’s father — felt the Winterhawks Junior Hockey organization helped Tanner grow both on and off the ice. “They are a great organization and are teaching the USA Hockey method including small-area games. When we decided to move from Portland to Minnesota it wasn’t because of the organization or anything. We just wanted to put Tanner on a team where he might have to struggle to be a top-three forward. There is a lot of skill in that 2005 birth year that will come out of Portland.”
Hockey in Minnesota and Bruender’s next steps
The transition to Minnesota hockey took Bruender about half a season. “It is a lot faster and a lot less time and space on the ice. I just noticed everyone here is super skilled so you always have to work hard. You have to earn your spot on the team and the practices are super competitive.”
Tanner joined the Chaska/Chanhassen Bantam AA team coached by Tre Douglas the last four seasons. Fans of the Winterhawks may recognize this program as Bruender becomes the third player drafted from this team the last three years — Max Burkholder in 2018 and Jimmy Snuggerud in 2019. Jack Stark — who attended Neely Cup the last two seasons — also hails from the Chaska/Chanhassen program.
Making the roster was no small feat for Bruender.
Douglas explained the steps required to get down to 15 skaters and two goalies. “Our tryout process is about two weeks long and includes intrasquad scrimmages as well as some scrimmages against other local associations. This year we had the highest number of kids tryout for our bantam teams with over 100 kids.”
Over the two weeks Douglas and his staff “Whittle down our list to about 20 kids and then this ‘tryout team’ plays against a few other associations in the area. We then make our final cuts to form our Bantam AA team.”
Once Tanner made the team, the adjustment really set in.
While in Portland, Bruender spent about two hours a week on the ice. Now in Minnesota, the number soared to about 16 per week between attending Breakaway Academy — a private school with an emphasis on hockey — and his association team.
Breakaway Academy boasts several alumni Winterhawks fans will recognize — current defenseman Clay Hanus, previously mentioned Burkholder and Snuggerud, and also NHL-drafted Portland, unsigned prospects Bobby Brink and Drew Helleson.
Speaking about his experience at Breakaway Academy, Bruender said, “It has been super fun. There are a lot of good players there, and it is also super competitive. They teach you a lot about how to become an elite hockey player, but they also teach you how to become a better person off the ice.”
Douglas agrees that Breakaway Academy has helped the players he coaches. “The private school offers small classroom learning opportunities along with daily training from some incredible hockey instructors. Many of the kids I’ve coached have loved going there because they get a great education in addition to being able to play hockey everyday with their buddies.”
Bruender does not play any games for Breakaway Academy, only his Bantam AA team — which is the highest level of Bantam hockey in Minnesota.
“A majority of the top players across the state play at this level,” Douglas said. “In addition, our team travels down to play Shattuck St. Mary’s which is a top boarding school in the country known for developing some great hockey players. We love playing Shattuck and any other high-end Tier 1 teams we are able to play. The speed and intensity of the games are great for our kids, it always has a great effect on our team. Our kids really see what it means to work hard and how important it is to play together when you are playing against some of the best kids in the country.”
The Bantam season starts in early October and runs through mid-March for the Minnesota state tournament.
Don’t take the puck from ‘Bruin’
Bruender’s coach Tre Douglas and his team gave Tanner the nickname ‘Bruin’ because “it rhymes with Bruender and he plays like a pissed off bear, especially if you take the puck away from him.”
Despite being drafted as a forward, Bruender did not start his playing days up front. In his first few years of playing, when asked where he wanted to play, “goalie” was often the answer. With the direction of his coaches, playing goalie and defense ended for Tanner and he made the transition to forward. “I always ended up rushing the puck (from his defensive position), so my coach then just put me at forward. I’ve just stuck at that position now.”
When asked to describe his game now, Tanner calls himself a “good two-way forward who can be effective offensively but also shut down the other team defensively too.”
Douglas, agrees, “Tanner is a great two-way, power forward. He plays with a ton of grit and this allows him to win puck battles along the wall and gain position on his opponents. He is an exceptional skater with a lethal shot. I absolutely loved watching this kid play below the goal line and in the corners.”
Over the course of the 2019-2020 season, Douglas worked with Bruender on three main areas including his size, skating, and shot.
“It was his first full season of checking hockey so we worked a ton on board play, puck protection, and angling in defensive situations. With his skating — he has a beautiful stride and pull-away speed — we worked on adding in some deception to his skating so he can try to make defenders bite and win those one-on-one rushes. He has a lethal shot, so we worked a lot on changing the angle of his shots to make life even more difficult for goalies.”
The hard work Bruender put in during the season paid off as he finished the season first on the team in goals and points. In 51 games, Tanner accumulated 36 goals, 29 assists and also a team best +36 rating.
Overall, Douglas was impressed with Bruender’s first year on the Bantam AA team and called him a “corner piece for our team. He centered our top line, played on the number one power play and penalty kill units, and was a major contributor to our second-half success as we went 23-3-3 over the last half of the season and made it to the state tournament.”
Douglas feels Tanner’s “stats and gameplay for a first-year Bantam were well in line with other talented players I’ve coached such as Jimmy Snuggerud (who recently made the United States National Team Development Program), Max Burkholder (2019 Minnesota Bantam Player of the Year), and Gracyn Sawchyn (first overall selection in the new US Prospects Draft). While these guys are all different players, they experienced a lot of success their first year of bantams and Tanner falls right in line with them.”
Part of what makes Bruender so successful is how he flips his always smiling personality off the ice into a ‘dog without his bone’ when he straps on the skates.
Douglas thinks “Portland picked a really good one here. Off the ice Tanner is one of the nicest and most humble kids I have ever coached. He is kind to all and truly a great young man. On the ice, he has a completely different attitude, and I love that about him. He’s a beast, or I guess a ‘bruin’, and I know great things are in store for Tanner.”
Bruender sees his name at WHL Bantam Draft
Using their fifth-round selection on Tanner Bruender, Portland selected its second forward of the 2020 draft.
“I was sitting at the table with my family, and I knew my name was going to get called soon but didn’t know when,” Tanner recalled. “The pick right before mine took a little while, it was a little behind, then all of a sudden five or six picks showed up. I saw my name, and was super excited and honored to get picked by the Portland Winterhawks. It was always a dream to play for the Portland Winterhawks.”
Seeing his name next to the organization where he was attending games as a fan just a few years ago, was a moment Bruender won’t soon forget. “It was super exciting and knowing the players who have gone through the organization before me is super exciting. There are some super good players who have gone through there and had successful NHL careers. To have my name there too is pretty cool.”
Part of the joy for a young teenager being drafted is having his social media and phone get busy. “I don’t think I’ve ever gotten that many texts in one day before,” Bruender said. “I also had three Winterhawks reach out to me in Clay Hanus, Reece Newkirk, and Cross Hanas. That was pretty cool. I never thought I would get a text from someone with a check mark by their name.”
Being drafted is just the first step in the process, and Tanner knows his work is just beginning. While the current conditions have limited his ability to be in the rink, it has not stopped Bruender from continuing to stay focused.
“I always give 100% whether it is on or off the ice, in practice or a game, I always give 100%. I’m trying to work on my strength and my stickhandling, but I’m working to get better at it every day. I’m used to skating at the rink almost every day, and I just miss it. Here at home I’ve been doing some workouts, shooting pucks, and stickhandling. I’ve also been going to the park rollerblading with my dad.”
The view from the 503
When the WHL held its inaugural US Prospects Draft prior to the regular Bantam Draft, 44 American-born players were selected. Mike Johnston, Portland Winterhawks Vice President, General Manager, and Head Coach said if the team’s top two selections were off the board, Bruender would have been its next selection.
Mike Coflin — Assistant to the general manager and director of scouting and player development — mentioned how Tanner was “quickly identified by Eric Doyle (USA Head Scout) and Jeff Pilacinski (Minnesota Scout) as a player of interest.”
Portland’s interest in Tanner started before they were aware of the local connection.
Coflin described what the team liked in Bruender, “(Eric and Jeff) were excited about the speed and power of his game, Tanner’s ability to make plays at full speed, and an excellent shot. His game is emerging as he gains experience and he is a driven, highly competitive kid.”
Not eligible to play full time in the WHL next season, Bruender will stay in Minnesota. “I’m going to try out for the Chaska/Chanhassen Bantam Team. If I make it, I will probably play with them. I will also try out for the high school team as well to see where I fit in with the other high school players.”
Bruender hopes to follow in Jimmy Snuggerud’s path who played varsity hockey as a ninth grader. “I look up to Jimmy, he is a super skilled player, and a hard worker. I’m trying to model my game after him.”
Back in the Rose City, many are waiting to see Bruender return from the Land of 10,000 Lakes and put on a Winterhawks jersey as a player rather than a fan.
“It was exciting for all of us to add such a promising player,” Coflin added. “With his Portland history, we feel he is a player who wants to win in the jersey he grew up wearing.”