It’s like Austin Pratt grew homesick after leaving Red Deer on three occasions over the past year.
“Every time I came here it seemed like I didn’t want to leave,” Pratt said Friday, after signing a standard Western Hockey League players contract with the Red Deer Rebels at the team office.
“It just felt like home. Brent (Rebels GM/head coach Sutter) is a great coach and I trust him with everything. I’m just happy to be here.”
The Rebels snared the six-foot-two, 205-pound forward in the fourth round of the 2014 WHL bantam draft. Pratt, from Lakeville, Minn., was selected out of the Shattuck St. Mary’s program and attended the Rebels’ prospects camp in June.
He returned to Shattuck St. Mary’s last fall and suited up with the school’s under-16 team. In 55 games over the past season, he scored 20 goals and added 32 assists for 52 points.
As an elite American player in his age group, Pratt attracted interest from U.S. (NCAA) colleges and while he didn’t receive any firm scholarship offers, he did talk to a few schools. But in the end, Red Deer was where he wanted to be all along.
Still, he had to convince himself that moving north of the border was the right call.
“It was a pretty tough decision, being from the United States and having a bunch of people wanting me to go to the NCAA,” he said. “But I have a lot of people supporting me. My family really supports me. That’s really what matters to me and it really helped with my decision.”
That Pratt didn’t sign with the Rebels until Friday shows that he put a lot of thought into the process. He was back in Red Deer for training camp last fall, visited again recently and was visited on more than one occasion at his home by Sutter over the past 12 months.
“We definitely tested his (Sutter’s) patience,” said Pratt. “I’m just glad he stuck with us and I couldn’t be more proud to be a Rebel.”
Sutter’s patience never wore thin and now he’s prepared to help Pratt develop into a player who can eventually make a living from the game.
“There’s been a process with it, but he obviously played in a great program at Shattuck and learned a lot from that,” said the Rebels boss. “Now he can come here and we can enhance those skills and get him to a level he foresees himself to be at and a level we foresee him to be at.
“He’s obviously a big young man, that’s why he can handle playing major junior hockey. Also, he has a gift with his skill set and the way he plays the game. He has that power forward approach and he’s more than capable of playing at this level next season and growing with it.
“There’s going to be some adjustments for him as there is with all young kids, not just on the ice but the office the ice too. But we’re certainly very excited to have a top-end player like this being with us.”
Pratt, who will celebrate his 16th birthday in July, is a self-described team player.
“I’ll do anything for a win. Even if I’m having a bad game, if I block at shot near the end that helps us to win, I’ll have the biggest smile on my face,” he said. “As long as we win I’ll be happy.”
He’s also had a blast racking up points over the past two seasons. During the 2013-14 campaign, Pratt sniped 30 goals and collected 73 points in 65 games with the Shattuck bantam tier 1 team.
“That’s always fun. I always thought points were a big deal but as I get older I know it’s harder and harder (to score) and you don’t have to focus on points to be a good player,” he said.
Pratt will likely be the only 16-year-old on the Rebels’ 2015-16 team that will host the Memorial Cup tournament next May.
“That’s going to be a blast,” he said. Obviously it’s going to make for a tough, long season. It’s going to be hard for me after being used to only playing about 55 games, but I’m ready for the grind.
“It (being the Memorial Cup host) wasn’t the main factor regarding me coming here, but the thought did linger around. I thought that it would be cool to play in it, but I’m coming for everything that happens before the Memorial Cup and all the coaching I’ll get here.”
His size will definitely be a plus as he adjusts to the major junior game, particularly with the style he plays.
“I make sure I get in there and play like a power forward,” he said. “I like to get to front of the (opposition) net and make sure they know I’m there. I make sure I finish at the net on every play.”
Although the Rebels waited until the fourth round of last year’s bantam draft to select Pratt, Rebels assistant GM/director of player personnel Shaun Sutter and director of scouting and player development Randy Peterson were of the opinion the young American would have been a top six to seven pick if he had been a Canadian player already committed to playing in the WHL.
“That’s the type of player he is,” said Brent Sutter. “At the end of the day, it’s worked out great for everybody and we’re all excited about moving forward with it.”
The Rebels targeted another American prospect in the 2014 bantam draft, taking Pratt’s former teammate Grant Mismash in the fifth round. However, Mismash, who turned 16 in February, has committed to the U.S. national program for two years and also has a scholarship offer from the University of North Dakota.
Mismash has been shifted to the Rebels’ college list with the hope that he’ll join the team at some point. He’s projected as a high NHL draft pick in 2017 and might report to Red Deer at the request of his NHL team.
Regardless, the Rebels were able to land Pratt, the first high-end American prospect the team has lured north under Sutter’s ownership.
“This is awesome, from an organizational standpoint and for me personally,” said Sutter. This is a very exciting day, to have a player like Austin commit to our program. Obviously this is a player we are very high on, a player who can fit right into our team next season as a 16-year-old.”