Victoria Royals’ blue-line gets draft-day boost

From the epically destructive 2016 wildfires in his hometown of Fort McMurray to the current pandemic, Austin Zemlak has experienced his share of emergency situations in his young life.

The five-foot-11, 161-pound defenceman was selected ninth overall by the Victoria Royals in the 2020 Western Hockey League bantam draft that was conducted online Wednesday due to COVID-19.

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“It was a scary situation,” he said, of surviving the wildfires, which displaced 88,000 people and destroyed 2,400 homes.

“We sold our house right after that and moved to Stony Plain.”

Moving away from old friends and schoolmates was hard, but Zemlak’s youth hockey career bloomed in the Edmonton area. He captained the OHA Edmonton Bantam Prep team of the Canadian Sport School Hockey League last season and had eight goals and 36 points in 27 games to be named a finalist for the CSSHL top defenceman award. He was second in team scoring, despite being a rearguard, and led his team in assists with 28.

“I am also strong defensively and am a physical and competitive player,” he said. “I feel I’m a three-zone defenceman with offence.”

After the wildfires came the pandemic.

“We were a very close team and it was disappointing not to finish what was left of our season,” said Zemlak, who is finishing Grade 10 via Google Classrom.

It is the third consecutive year the Royals have chosen a defenceman with their first pick. Zemlak will join the Royals’ blue line of the future. The Royals selected home-Island defencemen with their previous two first-round selections, Nolan Bentham 13th overall in 2018 and Jason Spizawka 19th overall last year.

Victoria GM Cam Hope said he doesn’t draft in terms of position. WHL teams rarely do because needs vary greatly from season to season and can quickly shift.

“We go for the best player available [regardless of position],” said Hope.

“[Zemlak] is a strong, versatile defenceman who plays the game with skill and purpose. He is a mobile skater. He has a bright future in the WHL. He is the complete package on the blueline. We were surprised he was still there at No. 9. We thought he would be gone by then. We couldn’t pass him up.”

Zemlak became the Royals’ ninth first-round selection since the franchise moved to the Island in 2011. Joe Hicketts was taken 12th overall in 2011, Tyler Soy eighth and Chaz Reddekopp 13th in 2012, Dante Hannoun 11th in 2013, Scott Walford 18th in 2014 and Eric Florchuk 13th in 2015. That was followed by Bentham in 2018 and Spizawka in 2019 after the Royals traded out of the first round in both 2016 and 2017.

Victoria did not have a second-round pick but had two third-round selections and took Saskatchewan forward Anthony Wilson 59th overall and defenceman Nate Misskey from the Pacific Coast Hockey Academy of Langford 64th overall.

“Wilson plays a strong, direct game. Misskey is a big, tall defenceman with terrific upside,” said Hope.

The fourth round netted forward Reggie Newman from Kamloops 72nd overall and the sixth round defenceman Justin Kipkie of Calgary 126th. The seventh round brought goaltender Logan Cunningham of Sherwood Park, Alta., 150th overall and defenceman Matthew Gillard of Yellowknife, NT, 152nd. Round out the Royals picks was forward Brent Hoshowski of Bonnyville, Alta., 188th in the ninth round.

The highest Island player of the 10 selected was forward Ty Halaburda of Langford, who went 32nd overall to the Vancouver Giants.

The Royals had traded their second-round pick, which turned out to be 31st overall, last summer to Red Deer in the deal for veteran defenceman Jacob Herauf.

“We’re not surprised [Halaburda] was long gone by the time we got to pick again [in the third round],” said Hope.

So too gone by then was forward Matthew Wood of Nanaimo, the second Islander taken, going 41st overall in the second round to the Regina Pats.

Defenceman Dayton Arneson of Victoria via Campbell River went 78th overall in the fourth round to the Calgary Hitmen, blue-liner Dylan Compton of Victoria 102nd overall in the fifth round to the Prince George Cougars, goaltender Joey Rocha of Nanaimo 109th overall to the Swift Current Broncos, goalie Liam Hallett of Victoria 114th in the sixth round to Prince George, forward Owen Beckner of Victoria 137th in the seventh round to Regina, defenceman Caden Tremblay of Port Alberni 163rd in the eighth round to the Medicine Hat Tigers and forward Randy McLaughlin of Nanaimo 164th to the Giants.

The pandemic forced the draft to be conducted virtually, but there were no glitches.

“I missed the free coffee but saved money on dry-cleaning,” quipped Hope.

Regina, selecting first, took prodigy Connor Bedard of North Vancouver, the first player in the history of the WHL to be granted exceptional status and allowed to play in the league as a 15-year-old. With the second overall pick, Prince George selected winger Riley Heidt from the Saskatoon Contacts.

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