Kris Chucko, headed to Minnesota in the fall, was one of three players taken from the British Columbia Junior League in the first 50 picks of the draft, including his Salmon Arm teammate Travis Zajac and second-round pick Ray Sawada.
Chucko, the 24th overall pick by Calgary, was another player whose stock rose quickly since the mid-season CSS rankings, from No. 61 to No. 29 to a first-round pick.
“Over the second half of the year, I was thinking [I’d be a] late second, early third-round [pick],” said Chucko. “But our team did well, and in the interviews in Toronto, I think I did well.
“The BCHL isn’t a heavily scouted league. It’s getting better. I think the fact that there’s two guys there to see every night [himself and Zajac], and the fact that Salmon Arm is between Kamloops and Kelowna, two WHL teams [helps bring scouts].”
Chucko was the captain at Salmon Arm, and hopes to bring that kind of leadership to Minnesota.
“I’m physical, I like to compete, I like to play both ends of the ice,” he said.
“I’ve got a lot of development to do. You have to be a pretty special player to be in the NHL at 18 or 19. … Getting drafted is very nice, but I have a lot of work to do. … Skating is the first thing, it’s improved a lot. But the strength, that’s why I’m going the college route — the extra time in the weight room and extra practice time.”
Perhaps an even bigger surprise was the selection of Darin Olver early in the second round. The diminutive Northern Michigan forward believed he did not have a great freshman season for the Wildcats (13-19–32), and was ranked No. 120 on the final CSS rankings.
But the New York Rangers, who apparently were trying to corner the market on college players, picked Olver with the No. 36 overall selection.
“I didn’t have a great year so I didn’t expect to go higher than 120,” Olver said. “But I felt and [NMU coach] Walt [Kyle] felt that was a little far-fetched. But I didn’t have a great year, so I can see where they were coming from.”
Kyle was formerly an assistant coach with the Rangers, so it’s conceivable that he put the good word in with his old friends in New York.
“I’m sure there was some kind of influence,” Olver said. “I don’t really mind it now.”
Earlier, the Rangers selected Olver’s CCHA nemesis, Michigan goalie Al Montoya. The two could be teammates down the road.
“He had my number this year. … I hope he doesn’t come back.”
Olver is well aware of the work he has left to do in college. But he said there’s no place he’d rather get the development than with Kyle.
“I’m obviously not the biggest guy, so to get away from them, I use my speed, cutbacks,” Olver said. “Just a lot of the stuff Walt’s given me. I can’t stress how great a program it is and how much he’s helping me.
“I think it’s gonna be a few years. I’m 175 pounds right now, so I’ve got a lot of work to do before I can think about playing there [in New York].”
When he gets there, the Boise, Idaho native who plays his college hockey in Marquette, Mich., may be in for a bit of culture shock.
“I don’t think I can compare anything to Marquette,” said Olver. “The snow piles are higher than most of the buildings there, and it’s negative weather and I remember coming home at 6 in the morning and just being frozen. The tear comes from your eye and it’s going to freeze on your cheek. … But nothing compares to Manhattan and the population and the diversity.”
Dartmouth’s Grant Lewis had a strong freshman year for the Big Green, and put up bigger offensive numbers than most people expected, especially Lewis himself. As a result, college-friendly Atlanta Thrashers general manager Don Waddell was quick to grab the 6-foot-3 Big Green defenseman.
“He’s a very rounded out two-way defenseman,” said Waddell, a Northern Michigan alumnus. “He has tremendous vision, hockey sense, is a good skater, good passer. His upside is he’s playing in a good program, and his upside is still in front of him.”
Lewis, a native of Pittsburgh, is part of a growing core of top-notch NHL Draft picks at Dartmouth. Hugh Jessiman was a first-rounder last year, and as of now is still returning for his junior season; and incoming forward Nick Johnson was the second pick of the third round.
“I’m a college fan,” said Waddell. “There’s not too many guys I advise to come out of school early. It’s a pretty good development for them. … We’ll monitor him over the next couple of years and let the process take its own course.”
Ray Sawada had the misfortune of taking his turn in the interview room while Wayne Gretzky was holding court at the podium. But the 6-foot-3 workhorse is unlikely to be overlooked, by Cornell fans and foes alike, once he arrives in Ithaca this fall.
“I’m still going to Cornell,” said Sawada, who was selected 52nd overall by Dallas. “You never know how long you’re going to stay there, but I’ll work my hardest once I get there.
“The only time I talked to [Dallas] was [Friday] actually, and all I did was a psychological test — which I guess went really well, obviously.
“I was told you should be going on the first day, but it could have been anywhere from the second to fourth round. So this is great.”
Sawada follows the Nanaimo pipeline to Cornell. The BCHL team has provided numerous players to the Big Red in recent years. The team’s coach, Bill Bestwick, also had a daughter, Brooke, who played on the women’s team and graduated in 2003.
“As soon as I committed to Nanaimo, they immediately put me in contact with Cornell,” said Sawada. “And they [the Cornell coaches] trust Bill a lot, so he said I would be a great fit, and they took me on.
“I like to crash and bang, hit people off the puck, and get the puck to goal scorers, and get those rebounds. Backcheck, I love to play the penalty kill.”
Fans at Cornell will be looking for another crowd favorite, after another former Nanaimo player, Greg Hornby, graduated, taking his hard-hitting, high-flying game with him. Though Sawada is taller than Hornby and with more offensive upside.
“They told me I would be stepping in and I’d be a cross between a couple of their players, and hopefully take over the hitting department from Greg Hornby,” Sawada said.