The Red Deer Rebels picked Gracyn Sawchyn with the first overall selection in the inaugural WHL U.S. Prospects Draft on Wednesday. (Photo courtesy of Red Deer Rebels)

Rebels pick Gracyn Sawchyn first overall in inaugural WHL U.S Prospects draft

The Red Deer Rebels went to a well-known hockey institution for their first pick in the WHL U.S. Prospects Draft.

The brand-new, two-round draft, featuring 2005-born players who live in the Western United States was conducted on Wednesday from the WHL office.

With the first overall pick, the Rebels selected Gracyn Sawchyn out of the Shattuck-St. Mary’s hockey program in Minnesota, that has produced a number of NHLers, including Sidney Crosby, Nathan McKinnon and Jonathan Toews.

Sawchyn, a five-foot-eight, 130-pound, right-shot forward was originally born in Edmonton and recorded 32 goals and 83 points with the Shattuck-St. Mary’s Bantam Tier I team.

Red Deer Rebels assistant GM Shaun Sutter said from the moment it was announced they would have the first overall selection, Sawchyn was their choice.

“If Gracyn was a Canadian player, who would be a lottery pick. He’s got high-end hockey sense, vision, skill, so he’s got a real good skill set,” Sutter said.

“He’s a guy that makes other players better and is a really good playmaker and real good offensive ability. When you’re picking first overall, this is a player that comes with that kind of pedigree.”

The teen also has ties to the WHL and Western Canada, as his dad is a scout for the Vancouver Giants and has several family members living in Alberta and B.C. The Sawchyns moved to Minnesota three years ago, making Gracyn eligible for the U.S. draft this year.

“He’s a highly-sought-after player that we feel really fortunate to be a position to pick him,” Sutter said.

“Now we get to work on building a relationship. We’ve obviously been doing that for a while, it’s rare you see a team pick a player and then right away, the player is wearing their jersey. We’re ecstatic to pick him.”

With the final pick in the new American prospects draft, the Rebels went back to Minnesota, selecting Aidan Willis of Farmington.

The five-foot-10, 168-pound left-shot forward posted 32 goals and 42 assists in 43 games with the Lakeville South Bantam AA Cougars. Sutter said Willis’ family had shown some interest in the WHL and the Rebels Minnesota area scout John Perpich was begging for the team to take Willis.

“He’s a skilled guy. Gritty. Can go through you or around you. Skates well, can really shoot the puck,” Sutter said.

“With this being a new draft, there’s a dynamic– do you take the best player or the players who are most interested? We feel pretty fortunate that we got two good players that are also interested versus players that may never show up in Red Deer.”

Sutter was also quick to credit Perpich for his scouting reports on both players that the Rebels picked in the newly-formed draft.

“John is down there and does a real good job for us and puts in a lot of work and watches these kids all the time,” Sutter added.

“He obviously saw Gracyn Sawchyn play, with him playing at Shattuck. He’s a big part of our U.S. scouting front and he really likes Aidan Willis as a player and he was a guy that John was pounding the table for.”

The last American the Rebels drafted and who came north was forward Austin Pratt. They selected him in the fourth round, 75th overall in the 2014 WHL Bantam Draft.

A Lakeville, Minnesota native, Pratt also played at Shattuck-St. Mary’s and in his Bantam year recorded 30 goals and 73 points in 65 games.

Both Sawcyhn and Willis aren’t eligible to play for the Rebels until the 2021-22 WHL season.

Email sports tips to Byron Hackett

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