At six-foot-three, 218 pounds Austin Pratt is not an ordinary 15-year-old.
The man child looks like he could step on the ice tomorrow and fit in on any scoring line in the WHL.
At least that’s what Red Deer Rebels owner, general manager and head coach Brent Sutter is hoping. He will be given every opportunity to make an impact as a 16-year-old this fall.
This weekend the Rebels are getting an up close and personal look at the Lakeville, Minn., native with their annual spring prospects camp at the Penhold Regional Multiplex.
“He’s a big, young man,” said Sutter. “He can handle it physically and he’s a real smart and intelligent player and that’s going to help him this year as a 16-year-old in our league.”
Pratt already is the biggest player on their active roster, but his preparedness for the WHL goes beyond his physical attributes. Sutter has been impressed with his off-ice demeanor and his maturity.
“He’s a very respectful kid. As a young man he speaks very well and he’s smart,” said Sutter. “He’s mature for his age.”
That’s more than just coach speak.
As a ‘veteran’ of the prospects he’s already taking it upon himself to help first year players feel their way through the process of the camp.
“I’m normally one who tries to get the team focused and ready for a game, so it’s a good transition to here,” said Pratt.
He has spent the past two years being groomed in one of North America’s preeminent hockey factories at Shattuck St. Mary’s, which also produced NHL stars like Sidney Crosby, Zach Parise and Jonathan Toews.
Last year with the school’s U-16 team he scored 52 points (20 goals, 32 assists) in 55 games, one season after scoring 73 points (30-43-73) in 65 games with the bantam team. That season lead to his fourth round selection in the WHL bantam draft.
Despite the slight dip in his numbers, he says 2014-15 was a season of on-ice growth, as he improved his already impressive shot and worked on his skating.
“I’m getting stronger, faster, more confident every day,” said Pratt. “Just like any big kid, my skating is the biggest thing, so I’ve been working the most on that.”
The improved conditioning already shows up on the scales, having dropped from 225 pounds last year to 218, with an improved muscle mass.
While this will be the furthest away from home he has ever lived — at 1,200 kilometres it’s a daunting hurdle for any teen — he says the hockey culture will be fairly familiar.
“It will be exciting, obviously I’ll miss my home, but the people here are great, the Rebels organization’s great … I won’t miss home too much,” said Pratt. “Everyone lives, breathes, eats hockey and that’s what I love.”
Although he grew up with the Minnesota Wild in his backyard, he grew up on Canadian hockey as a Toronto Maple Leafs fan, with his father David Pratt a native of the Big Smoke.
However, that did not factor in his decision to come back to Canada.
“My dad has watched a bunch of major junior hockey, he knew what I was going to get with the WHL and NCAA and he just supported me with whatever choice I made,” said Pratt, adding his dad was actually more of a football player than hockey player.
With this background, Pratt plays a style of game that makes any Canadian hockey fan giddy, using his size for more than just eating up space. His hockey heroes and those he patterned his game after come with the names Milan Lucic and Brandon Saad.
“He’s strong, he’s a big power forward and that’s how he’s going to have to play,” said Sutter. “He’s got to be a guy that plays that power game. Obviously just being 16, he’s going to get better and better and better as he goes a long and as he grows and gets stronger … He’s going to be a horse in this league at some point.”
The biggest question about Pratt was answered in April when he signed on with the Rebels.
It is often difficult for WHL teams to predict whether American draft picks will actually come north to play. Fellow Shattuck St. Mary’s teammate Grant Mismash was taken one round after Pratt by the Rebels in the 2014 WHL bantam draft, 97th overall, but instead has committed to the University of North Dakota.
It is for this reason, these players often slide in the draft and require teams to nurture a solid relationship with these players and their family.
“After seeing everything and coming here, I thought this would be the better route,” said Pratt, who also was considering college hockey. “Brent’s a great coach, he told me all the stuff he thinks I can do, so I’m trying my best to live up to that expectation.”
In the case of Pratt, the extra work has paid off to this point for the Rebels, and he could prove to be the steal of his draft class.
“We tell all of our young kids this, there’s a process to development, both as players and as individuals, as people. That’s part of maturing,” said Sutter. “(Pratt’s) no different than anyone else in that way, in fact he’s a little bit ahead in certain areas because of his strength and because of the type of player he is. He wouldn’t have slipped to where he did if he was playing in Canada, he would have been a first round draft pick.”
The prospect camp continues today at 3:45-5:45 p.m. and on Sunday from 9-11 a.m. at the Penhold Regional Multiplex.