Thunderbirds select Popowich in WHL draft
Camrose Red Wings captain Sam Popowich was selected in the fifth round of the Western Hockey League bantam draft on Thursday. Supplied/LA Media
The Western Hockey League has dipped back into the Camrose Red Wings pool of players.
Froward Sam Popowich was selected in the fifth round (91 overall) of the WHL bantam draft on Thursday by the Seattle Thunderbirds, making him the eleventh Red Wing selected in the last three years.
"Seattle had been talking to me a bit before but I did not expect to go that early in the draft and it was just awesome when I saw my name get called," he said.
Popowich skated away with the team's scoring title this season with 45 points (19 goals, 26 assists) in 34 games. The next highest was Carson Taylor with 23 points in 28 games (8-15-23). This season, however, was more memorable for Red Wings captain than his point totals. It was a rebuilding season for the club after they had a franchise-record eight players drafted in the spring of 2017 and they finished 2018 with an 8-26-2 record.
"It made me a better hockey player," he said. "Last year we had so many good guys, I didn't have to do as much and we'd still win games by a lot. And this year it changed me that we're not going to win every game and have to show up every game and paly my best if we're going to have a chance."
It is that personal growth and leadership that caught the eye of Thunderbirds director of player personnel Cal Filson.
Despite his five-foot-seven, 144-pound frame, Filson sees a spot for the Camrose native in the Seattle lineup in the future, potentially as a 16-year-old but likely the following year.
"We do out background research on guys and see if they're going to be a high character person before we draft them," he said.
The intangibles is a big reason what led Seattle to draft forward Greg Nelson and goalie Ty Marcinkowski last year from the Red Wings.
Filson said Popowich's skill and hockey sense, mixed with his work ethic makes up for his lack of size, an they already are having success with a couple of players the same size as Popowich on their roster right now. Major junior hockey is transitioning from a level filled with six-foot-two-plus forwards with more of an emphasis on skill and compete.
Popwhich does need to get a bit stronger and quicker, but Filson said his natural ability is apparent. He watched him several times in 2016-17 and three times this past season – at Christmas, at the end of the regular season and at the Alberta Cup with the gold-medal winning Team Central.
"He's always provided that offensive ability and he's always competed hard and he was always a guy that you had to watch out for because he was by far the most effective weapon on his team. At the Alberta Cup, you put him with the elite players of Alberta and pay him against the elite players of Alberta and he really stood out."
This success is no fluke in the eyes of Red Wings head coach Darryl Gagnon. He witnessed the hard work he showcased during practice and games, but also the extra hours he was putting in with Camrose Minor Hockey Association skills coach Tim Green with 6:30 a.m. ice sessions once a week with three other local players.
"Even before school started he was at work," said Gagnon. "If there's anyone who is better than him, he's going to put in the extra effort to get better. He's one of those kids who I know will continue to work. I know there's probably some kids that have more high-end talent than him but his work ethic can not be challenged."
Popowich says that extra work with Green helped shape him as a player.
"I got lots out of that and it really helped me improve my skills," he said. "Just little things like around the net and anything I wanted to work on he was there to help me."
Popowich will be giving midget AAA in Sherwood Park a shot next season – Camrose does not have a midget AAA program. If that falls through he will return to Camrose and play for the minor midget AAA U15 team. This summer he will get his first taste of the Thunderbirds at their rookie camp in Edmonton and then will go to their camp in the fall. He, however, is not eligible to play for the team until his 16-year-old season.
This mean he has at least one year to fine tune and improve his game for the WHL.
"I think I have to work on slowing the game down for myself and making the right play when it's there," he said. :Other than that, with what I bring to the table, with my aggression I think I can do well."