By Patrick King, Sportsnet.ca
It didn’t take Spokane Chiefs head coach Bill Peters long to realize he had a keeper in Mitch Wahl.
Wahl, who was taken with the fourth overall pick by the Chiefs in the 2005 Western Hockey League Bantam Draft, stood out as a 16-year old in his rookie season. In fact, the shifty forward was so strong at finding his teammates in practice, he didn’t need to send a message to the older players on the team. His coach did it for him.
“We were doing a little battle drill in limited space and he was setting guys up left, right and center,” Peters recalled. “I made the comment out loud to get the attention of our group that if I was a player on this team, I would want to play with Mitch Wahl.
“He gets you the puck and you’re going to get some offensive opportunities playing with ‘Wahly.’”
Now in his second season in the WHL, Wahl isn’t much of a surprise to the rest of league but he certainly had an uphill battle to become a hockey player. Growing up in Seal Beach, Ca., Wahl’s small hometown in Orange County was known more for its beauty and influx of tourists than for producing hockey players.
However, doors began to open in southern California for those interested in the sport following Wayne Gretzky’s 1988 trade to the Los Angeles Kings.
“I started playing when I was about six and I think it was just mainly when Gretzky came down to play for the Kings,” Wahl said. “It kinda got big down there and it opened some organizations.”
As he got older, his parents noticed his talent and began giving their son more opportunities. Wahl played in tournaments in Vancouver, Kamloops and Medicine Hat – which helped put him on the WHL’s radar. After speaking with a few Californians who were playing in the WHL, it helped make up his mind as to which direction his career should be headed.
“I heard about the western league through the grapevine,” he said. “(Then) the draft came and here I am.”
One of the players Wahl knew before arriving in Spokane is now his linemate on the Chiefs’ top line. Drayson Bowman, who hails from Littleton, Co., went through a similar route to the WHL. Bowman and his family, however, relocated to Vancouver, B.C. in his early teens to play bantam hockey and show off his talent to the scouts. The Chiefs eventually took Bowman eighth overall in the 2004 WHL Bantam Draft.
“I think we’ve got a lot of chemistry together and hopefully we get to play together for a long stretch of time,” Bowman said. “We’re really gelling on the ice. He moves the puck so well, he just finds ways to find your stick and it’s really a lot of fun to play with him.”
Bowman, a third round pick of the Carolina Hurricanes in this past June’s draft, spent time at the Hurricanes’ camp before the WHL season started and even played in an exhibition game for the ‘Canes.
“The amount of work that goes into what the (professionals) do was a real eye-opener,” Bowman, who now has a deeper appreciation for the work ethic of the professionals, said. “If I can bring that attitude to the dressing room hopefully (my teammates will) learn from that and work even harder and make the team better.”
Wahl, who is in his draft eligible year for the National Hockey League draft, is one of the Chiefs players who could benefit from learning about Bowman’s experience at the NHL camp. Given his elite skills set, Wahl should garner some interest as a high pick for the upcoming draft. And although Wahl says he doesn’t feel pressure being in his draft year, his head coach said it’s only natural to have butterflies in his stomach when the scouts are watching.
“There’s no question everyone that goes into their draft year, it affects them one way or another,” Peters said. “They can say it doesn’t affect them or they don’t think about it but that’s not being honest. It’s like the coach saying he doesn’t read the sports section.”
What makes Wahl such a special player, Peters said, is his ability to find the open man and his maturity for his age.
“He makes his wingers better and for a young guy at 17 years old, we have high expectations for Mitch,” the Chiefs head coach said. “He plays against other teams best guys a lot of nights. That’s hard to do at a young age in the western league but he’s able to do it.
“For a kid who came out of a non-traditional market in Seal Beach, Ca., he’s got very good hockey sense and elite on-ice vision.”
Spokane, Wash. might be a long way from Seal Beach, Ca. but for Mitch Wahl, the risk has definitely brought the reward.
“(My family and I) put a lot of thought in our decision (to play in the WHL),” Wahl said, “but we definitely made the right choice.”