The Western Hockey League bantam draft in May will be the last known under that name. It will become the WHL U-15 draft beginning in 2021 in keeping with the Hockey Canada divisional name changes which go into effect next season.
But whatever you want to call it, WHL scouts and GMs are describing the 2020 draft as the deepest in seven years.
Several of the players who will be selected in that draft are skating this week in the 47th annual Rick Lapointe Memorial A1 and A2 Bantam Showcase, which began Thursday at the Ian Stewart Racquet Club Complex, Juan de Fuca Arena, Pearkes Arena and Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre. It runs through to the A2 final at 10 a.m. and A1 final at 12:30 p.m. on Sunday, both at the Ian Stewart Complex.
“What we are hearing from our scouts, and those across the league, is this 2005-born group for the 2020 draft is deeper than any draft since the 1998-born group was selected in 2013,” said Cameron Hope, president and GM of the WHL’s Victoria Royals.
Tyler Benson went first overall that year to the Vancouver Giants and Josh Anderson of Duncan third overall to the Prince George Cougars. But the depth of that 2013 bantam draft is measured in players taken much later. They include Calgary Flames prospects Dylan Dube, 21st overall to Kelowna, and Matthew Phillips, 33rd overall to the Royals. Noah Gregor, taken 55th overall by Victoria that year, recently scored his first NHL goal for the San Jose Sharks. Cal Foote, selected 43rd overall by Kelowna, went in the first round of the 2017 NHL draft to the the Tampa Bay Lightning.
With that sort of talent array again available, WHL teams have spread their scouts far and wide. The Rick Lapointe event is among several bantam tournaments being scouted this month by WHL teams, from the Prairies across the border to Arizona.
“They are all important for us to be at,” said Hope.
The Royals’ scouts will be afield but have been careful not to neglect their own backyard. The Lapointe tournament is where Hope and his scouts first saw Racquet Club of Victoria defenceman Nolan Bentham perform. Bentham became the first home-Island player selected by the Royals in the first round of the WHL draft when they took him 13th overall in 2018. Bentham is now a rookie blue-liner with the Royals.
That was followed by the Royals selecting another home-grown defenceman out of the Racquet Club, Jason Spizawka, in the first round of the 2019 WHL draft last spring.
To say the Royals value the Lapointe tournament may be the understatement of bantam hockey.
“The Island produces a lot of really good players,” said Hope.
The Island teams involved in the Rick Lapointe tournament this year are the Juan de Fuca Grizzlies A1 and A2, Victoria Admirals A1, Nanaimo Clippers A1 and Victoria Racquet Club Kings A2.
The visiting teams are the North Vancouver Storm Al, Semiahmoo Ravens A1, Coquitlam Chiefs A1, Richmond Jets A1, South Delta Storm A1, Hollyburn Huskies A2, North Vancouver Storm A2, Burnaby Bulldogs A2 and Port Coquitlam Pirates A2.
Not that this is an exact science. Those overlooked in the WHL bantam draft have famously included Jamie Benn of Victoria and the likes of Joffrey Lupul, Shea Weber, Jarome Iginla, Shane Doan, Tyler Ennis and Dan Hamhuis.
Meanwhile, on-site tournament auction items this year include a jersey signed by this season’s Humboldt Broncos of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League with half the proceeds going to the Buddy Check for Jesse fund to support mental health in honour of the late local player Jesse Short-Gershman. Other auction items include signed Bo Horvat and Elias Pettersson Canucks jerseys.
The tournament is named in honour of 11-season NHL defenceman and Esquimalt-product Rick Lapointe, who came out of the WHL’s Victoria Cougars. This is the 20th anniversary of Lapointe’s death. The tournament was renamed in his honour after he died in 1999. On hand for the anniversary will be his son, Danny Lapointe, who played four seasons in the WHL before playing for the University of Calgary Dinos and pro in the ECHL.