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2020 NHL Draft hopefuls could miss out on memorable moment


As puck-chasing prospects, it’s a moment they have dreamed about — hearing your name called at the NHL Draft, receiving hugs and handshakes, tugging that jersey over your head for the first time.

“That experience of getting to go up on stage and get to meet the guys that drafted you and believe in you and want you on their squad, that would be something surreal,” said Airdrie-raised winger Jake Neighbours, who averaged north of a point per game — 23 goals and 47 assists in 64 twirls — this winter for the Western Hockey League’s Edmonton Oil Kings. “I’m hoping that still gets to happen.”

That’s up in the air after Wednesday’s news that the 2020 NHL Draft — slated for June 26-27 at the Bell Centre in Montreal — has been postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with the league saying in a statement the “location, timing and format” of the annual prospect pick-’em would be announced once finalized.

Neighbours, pegged as a potential first- or second-rounder, had already booked his flight and secured tickets for 20-plus loved ones and supporters.

Luke Prokop, who hails from Edmonton and patrols the blue-line in Calgary for the Hitmen, was also planning to spend the last weekend of June in Montreal. The 17-year-old is a likely mid-round pick.

Both skated in the CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game in mid-January.

Both scored invites to the annual scouting combine, but that’s now been scrapped.

“As a kid, I would always watch the draft and even during the season, I would go back and try to figure out where players were drafted, where they went to, what round they were picked in, stuff like that,” said Prokop, who notched four goals and 23 points this season but does his best work in his own zone. “The past couple of years, it has been pretty cool to see some of my older friends and teammates and guys that I work out with and train with in the summer get drafted and see their dreams come true. It’s always been a time of year where I try to watch it and just cheer on my teammates and stuff like that. And this year, hopefully, I could have had that same experience.”

Neighbours, Prokop and a couple hundred more talented teens are now facing that uncertainty. (Other top prospects with local ties include defenceman Jake Sanderson, an Edge School alum with the USA Hockey National Team Development Program, University of Wisconsin Badgers centre Dylan Holloway and Prince Albert Raiders right-winger Ozzy Wiesblatt.)

They will be drafted.

But when? Where? How?

“I’m hoping it will maybe just get moved back, not anything worse,” Neighbours said.

There’s been a steady stream of bad news this week for the next wave of NHL hopefuls.

It started with word there would be no playoffs across the Canadian Hockey League — the umbrella organization for the WHL, OHL and QMJHL — and that the Memorial Cup tournament had also been cancelled.

It continued with the postponement of the draft.

Hitmen netminder Jack McNaughton was on NHL Central Scouting’s mid-season watch list, but he’s not a sure thing to be selected in 2020.

The 18-year-old was determined to bolster his case with a superb spring showing.

“Personally, I wasn’t too happy with how my season went throughout the regular season, and I was hoping I would be able to turn things around in playoffs,” said McNaughton, who posted a 17-8-2 record, a 3.34 goals-against average and .878 save percentage in his second campaign with his hometown Hitmen. “I feel like definitely this year in the playoffs would have been a good point for a lot of guys on the team to just show what we’re capable of and how deep we can go and for the guys that are draft-eligible this year to up our draft stock and for the guys trying to find contracts. I think this playoffs could have definitely helped them too.”

Prokop, a big dude at 6-foot-4 and 219 lb., was also anxious to impress the scouts in those high-stakes, won-or-done scenarios.

“I relish the fact that the playoffs are an important time and I think I bring out my best in the playoffs,” he said. “Just living up to those big-game moments, Game 7s, final minutes, stuff like that … I think those moments in games and series showcase who you are as a player, and I think I thrive in those moments.”

During the sporting shutdown, big-league scouting staffs are already busy finalizing their wish lists for the 2020 NHL Draft.

These prospects hope they can eventually meet in Montreal for the standard handshakes and photo ops.

But if not …

“I think the biggest thing about being drafted is the opportunity to be a part of a National Hockey League organization. Just being recognized is the biggest thing,” said Neighbours, who turns 18 this weekend. “You probably feel so accomplished when you hear your name called, I’m assuming. It’s just that feeling of accomplishment — not satisfaction, but that you made it there and now you have to get back on your horse and try to make the team. I just think the idea of getting drafted, in general, would be surreal. It obviously would suck not being able to go up on stage, but at the same time, I think it’s the same feeling, same accomplishment.”

Echoed Prokop: “For me, it’s a celebration of all the hard work I’ve put in and I think just being around my family is the most important part around that time. If we’re on the couch together or we’re in the stands, it might make a bit of a difference atmosphere-wise, but as long as I’m surrounded by my family and friends, it won’t make a difference to me.”

wgilbertson@postmedia.com

Twitter.com/WesGilbertson

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020

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