In the WHL, remembering they are just kids

For a lot of local hockey fans and supporters of major junior hockey, WHL Trade deadline day can be one of the more fascinating days of the year.

Teams improve, they build for the future or they sit back and watch it all unfold.

But what often gets lost in the shuffle, in particular on deadline day but perhaps more so every day in the WHL and across junior hockey– these are just kids.

They’ve left their family to pursue an opportunity in the best development league in the world, and likely created a strong bond and connection with their teammates and new city.

In the blink of an eye, that’s all gone.

According to WHL website, 58 trades total were made across the league including 110 players from Nov. 13 to the deadline on Jan. 10.

The Red Deer Rebels sent forward Austin Pratt to the Regina Pats a few days before the trade deadline, after three years with the team, Pratt, 18, now wears a completely different uniform. He was a fan favourite. You see several kids sporting his jersey almost every night at the Centrium.

Other players said goodbye to cities and friends they’ve known for four years, become close to and probably even grown fond of. That’s hard enough for anyone in life to deal with, let alone teenagers who are expected and relied upon to perform at peak ability night in and night out.

It really hit me when I watched Red Deer Rebels rookie defenceman Sam Pouliot, 17, say goodbye to his teammates after he was sent to the Power River Kings of the BCHL.

There was raw emotion, genuine and heartfelt goodbyes shared between these kids, even though we all mostly see them just as players with an exceptional hockey talent. As a collective, they mostly care about the group of players around them and when they are sent elsewhere by the powers above, it stings.

Sometimes, even I forget to remember they are just kids.

I’ve found myself saying that a lot lately, considering the reaction to Swedish forward Lias Andersson throwing his silver medal over the glass at the World Juniors. There was plenty of backlash to his reaction online and I needed to increasingly remind myself that he’s just a kid, pissed off that he lost. A competitive kid, at the top level for his age group, who let emotion get the better of him. Again, because he’s a kid, and that’s what kids do. Many preached about the lack of sportsmanship or humility the moment showed, I chose to read it differently.

There was also the reaction to 19-year-old Canadian defenceman Cale Makar, a Calgary native, deciding to remain with his NCAA team at the University of Massachusetts–Amherst instead of joining Team Canada for the Olympics. Makar hasn’t spoken about the decision, so it is incredibly unfair to judge his decision.

I empathize with his position completely.

Now, going to the Olympics for most of us would be a no-brainer, but most of us didn’t just win a gold medal for Canada, or get drafted fourth overall in the NHL Entry Draft. I think what some forget is the stress this teen just went through, representing his country essentially on Canadian soil in Buffalo, before potentially having to uproot his life again for another month to go to Pyeongchang. That kind of stress and upheaval is enough to push even the toughest of individuals to their limits, let alone a teenager. He’s just a kid, who wants to settle in and play some Xbox, try and win an NCAA title and get better by training with his university team.

In the public eye at a young age, major junior players now more than ever are being treated like they’re part of the pro hockey business. For some of them, that very well could be a part of the future, but when the mud starts to sling about their trades, decisions or their actions, try for a second to remember they’re just kids.

I’ll do the same.

Email sports tips to Byron Hackett

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