PENTICTON, B.C. — In Las Vegas, they put Spencer Foo’s name up on the arena marquee. His name in lights in Vegas, before he’d even signed with his first National Hockey League organization.
In Edmonton, his hometown, the welcoming committee was more focused. “Hi, I’m Wayne Gretzky. You’d sure look good in blue and orange, Spencer.”
In Calgary, they learned he had a weakness for hot sauce, so his dressing room stall included products by Bauer, Warrior, Tabasco, Texas Pete and Frank’s.
Hot sauce, exactly what Flames fans are hoping Foo brings to the table when he becomes the star player these NCAA free agents so often are billed to be.
“I’ve always seen myself getting to this point, but it is pretty special,” Foo said on his first day at the 2017 Young Stars Classic in Penticton. “Last year, I was probably sitting in class right now.”
Foo muddled through two uninspired periods before his game emerged in the final period of a 4-2 loss to Edmonton in the tournament opener Friday night. He took a couple of minor penalties and had an assist on a Mark Jankowski goal, but was outshone by an unknown Kamloops kid named Chad Butcher, who had two goals for Edmonton.
Goalie Dylan Wells made 26 for the Baby Oilers saves and was the difference maker in this game.
It has become part of the National Hockey League fabric, and perhaps a smaller part of why some people want to see the draft age raised a hear to 19, to court these NCAA grads like Foo. There are always those players, like Foo, who went undrafted, then emerged from three seasons at Union College as a legitimate NHL prospect.
A red carpet that drafted kids never see gets rolled out, as NHL clubs competed for Foo’s favour like taxi drivers at an airport.
“You get to meet a lot of ex-players, pick the brains of the guys who have been there,” Foo said. “I went for dinner with some guys in Detroit, got to meet Wayne Gretzky in Edmonton… But at the end of the day, it’s you that’s stepping off and playing hockey. Those guys can’t do it for you.”
He’s a level-headed kid with obvious talent who likely chose the Flames over Edmonton largely due to the dearth of talent on right wing in Calgary compared to Edmonton. There Jesse Puljujarvi and Kailer Yamamoto, who was impressive here Friday, are in the pipeline that includes Ryan Strome, Anton Slepyshev and Zack Kassian.
“There are tons of different factors that go into it, but at the end of the day you have to just follow your gut,” the 23-year-old said. “I picked a team that is on the verge of winning in the future, that has a good group of young guys. It got me excited, and that was my gut feeling.”
We’ve seen a litany of them emerge from the NCAA in recent years, to varying degrees of success. Some were drafted but went unsigned to become unrestricted free agents, like defenceman Justin Schultz, while others went undrafted and simply emerged from NCAA careers as uber-valuable commodities, like Foo.
Schultz overcame an inept organization in Edmonton and suddenly has two Stanley Cup rings to his credit in Pittsburgh. Defenceman Danny Dekeyser chose the Red Wings and has forged a steady, nearly 400-game career in Detroit. Goalie Matt O’Connor went to Ottawa, where he’s played just one NHL game in two seasons, as questions mount on his future with the Senators.
Edmonton won the Drake Cagguila lottery, and he looks like an excellent player. Matt Gilroy in New York? We’re not so sure.
From Tyler Bozak to Kyle Baun, they all arrive with much hype, then develop at their own pace. Some turn out, while others turn out to be overhyped.
“Can he play right away? I don’t know,” said Flames GM Brad Treliving. “He’s got the physical traits, the skill, and he’s competitive as hell. Is he ready now? Is he ready in October? A year from now? I don’t know. But he’s a competitive kid. I wouldn’t put it past him.”
Foo will get at least one more game here in Penticton, and at age 23, he should show greater dominance at this level than he did Friday. But it’s only one game, his first as a professional.
He’ll get plenty of opportunity in Calgary. If he’s good enough, he’ll play.