VANCOUVER — Minutes after he was drafted by the Washington Capitals last year, Alex Kannok Leipert got a call from his best friend and Vancouver Giants teammate.
Bowen Byram simply couldn’t contain his excitement, Kannok Leipert said.
“I didn’t hear much,” he said with a laugh. ”He was just screaming.”
Now Kannok Leipert is hoping to repay the favour. Byram is poised to be the first defenceman picked at this year’s NHL draft in Vancouver.
“He was the first person who called me, actually, when I was drafted. So hopefully I can be the first for him,” Kannok Leipert said. “But probably not. He’ll be pretty busy.”
Byram is already busy capturing attention around the Western Hockey League and beyond.
Now in his second season with the Giants, the 17-year-old native of Cranbrook, B.C., has developed a reputation not only for his work on the blueline, but his play-making prowess and deadly shot, too. He’s second on the team in scoring, tallying 51 points across 51 games, and his 21 goals lead all WHL defenceman.
Byram was named the league’s player of the month for January after he had 10 goals and nine assists in 13 games.
The performance isn’t surprising to Michael Dyck. The Giants head coach knows the burgeoning rearguard better than most — his family is friends with Byram’s and he first started coaching the young athlete about seven years ago, initially in summer hockey, then with a championship-winning bantam team in Lethbridge, Alta.
Byram has always been an elite player, but the way he’s consistently raised his game level by level is unique, Dyck said.
“He plays with an edge. He’s a highly competitive kid. He’s always on his toes. He’s one of those guys where, if anything, we’ve got to pull the reigns back a bit, which is a good thing as opposed to having to prod somebody,” he said, noting that Byram’s good on both sides of the puck.
“He can skate, he can think, he can make plays, he’s a 200-foot player.”
Byram’s work ethic and attitude are infectious, Kannok Leipert said of his defence partner.
“You can tell, as soon as he walks into the room, he’s there to make everyone better,” said the 18-year-old Giants defenceman. ”He works so in and out every day. It’s pretty special to see. It rubs off definitely on everyone. He’s pretty special.”
In the Giants’ end, Byram is a pesky, firmly nudging opponents away from the crease and battling hard for pucks. His transition to offence is seamless and he continues to use his six-foot-one, 192-pound frame to create space. He excels in clutch situations, including on Wednesday night when netted the game-winner 57 seconds into overtime, giving the Giants their third victory in a row.
Aggressive isn’t a word the teen shies away from when describing his game.
“I like to be involved in everything, scrums and whatnot. So I’d say I’m an aggressive player,” he said, adding that he likes model his game after players like Morgan Rielly, a 24-year-old Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman. The Vancouver native has a career-high 53 points this season, tallying 14 goals and 39 assists.
“(Rielly’s) kind of the new-wave defenceman in the NHL. And he’s been having a great year, so that’s who I like to think of.”
Giants general manager Barclay Parneta said he wasn’t at all surprised that Byram was ranked fourth among North American skaters and the top-overall defenceman in the league’s latest scouting report.
With his skills, the teen could slot right into any NHL franchise, he said.
“He’s that good. It doesn’t really matter,” said Parneta, who spent seven years scouting for NHL teams.
But what makes Byram truly special can’t be registered on a scoresheet, he added, saying the teen’s off-ice contributions, leadership and genuine personality are what set him apart from other young elite players.
“I’ve been around a lot of guys that went on to pro and a lot of guys that excel, like (Montreal Canadiens right-winger) Brendan Gallagher,” Parneta said. ”He’s no different today than when he played for the Giants. He’s still the same kid and Bo’s very much made from the same cloth,”
He said that comes from Byram’s parents, including his dad, Shawn Byram, a former NHLer who was drafted by the New York Islanders in 1986.
“They’re just down to earth, good people,” Parneta said. ”They had our whole team over for dessert when we were in Cranbrook (for a recent game.)”
As Byram has caught people’s attention and grown into a young star to watch, the pressure on him has intensified. But Dyck said the teen has remained a “down-to-earth kid” who has a great sense of humour and is a great teammate.
“I think he’s able to handle that because he’s put his focus on our hockey club,” the coach said. “And I think he also trusts that if the team does well, and he plays within that and he’s a big part within that, that his individual success is going to follow.”
Being recognized as a talented player is “cool,” but playing hockey comes first, Byram said.
“I’m not too worried about all the press and whatnot. I’m just trying to help the Vancouver Giants win games,” he said.
“I’m not a selfish guy. I love winning games. Whether I get zero points or five points in a night and we win, it doesn’t matter to me. Winning’s the best feeling in the world.”