For young hockey players trying to punch their ticket to the NHL, no two paths are quite the same.
Some players, usually the ones that are consistently the most skilled on their teams growing up, become accustomed to the competitive intricacies of youth hockey early on.
They get used to key figures from their local hockey communities introducing themselves, to curious strangers coming to watch them play because of word of mouth, to scouts trying to recruit them to join unfamiliar teams located across hundreds of miles of cold, rural highway.
By the time they are eligible for whichever league’s entry draft is closest to home, these players are ready and waiting, many of them expecting to go in a certain round and furiously refreshing their computer screens to see which team takes them.
But not all.
For some, such as Brandon Wheat Kings forward Cole Reinhardt, these drafts are something of a foreign concept.
“When I was at the age of getting drafted I didn’t really know much about the draft,” he said.
Reinhardt is a 6-foot left wing that’s off to a nice start for the Brandon Wheat Kings, with four points in his first seven games. The two-way forward opened the season on a high note, scoring two goals as the Wheat Kings stunned the powerhouse Regina Pats, the hosts of the 2018 Memorial Cup, by a score of 8-1.
It was a big-stage performance that might not have gone unnoticed.
Less than two weeks later, NHL Central Scouting released their “Players to Watch” list for the 2018 draft. Twenty-seven Western Hockey League players made the list.
Reinhardt was one of them, as a ‘C-rated’ prospect.
It’s a pretty impressive accomplishment considering Reinhardt was selected in the ninth round, 197th overall, in the 2015 WHL Bantam Draft two years ago.
He played for the Airdrie Xtreme Bantam AAA team that season, scoring 29 points in 29 games — third on the team. In terms of overall league scoring he tied for 57th.
It’s clear though, that Reinhardt has come a long way since then.
But David Anning, the second-year head coach of the Wheat Kings, isn’t surprised that it happened.
He’s seen Reinhardt’s growth first-hand.
“He is a guy who’s committed, he wants to be a hockey player,” Anning said. “He goes about it the right way. He’s a good person. We use him in all situations. He’s an intelligent guy. He buys into what we’re trying to accomplish and we trust him on the ice.”
Now in his second year with Brandon, Reinhardt’s role has evolved into something of a jack-of-all-trades. He chips in points and gets trusted in defensive situations. He plays both sides of special teams. He’s a winger, but also takes faceoffs.
Reinhardt has earned his chance.
“He played for us as a 16-year-old, which I think was good for him to get his feet wet in the league,” Anning said. “His offseason was excellent. He came back to training camp in great shape. He was one of those guys that took a step. From a 16-year-old to a 17-year-old he took a big step in his play and in his conditioning.
“He’s a step quicker now and it allows him to get on top of the forecheck more effectively. I think his shot’s improved. Those are the two main areas. Again, he’s an intelligent player, he keeps learning and getting better every day.”
Reinhardt, who said that he models his game after Edmonton Oilers forward Leon Draisaitl, the third overall pick in 2014, also mentioned his skating as one of the main areas that he’s worked to improve over the years.
“I focus a lot on my foot speed,” he said. “When I was younger I wasn’t very fast, I was always the slower guy, but now I think I’m keeping up with everyone and that’s made a difference.”
While Draisaitl is the benchmark he aspires to, it’s also noticeable how a little bit of Nolan Patrick’s versatile, two-way game has influenced Reinhardt.
The two were teammates last year, after all.
“His skill and decision-making….it rubs off a lot,” said Reinhardt of Patrick, the No. 2 pick from the 2017 draft. “He’s a good player to watch.”
As Reinhardt is helping to show, where a player gets selected in any draft does not seal their fate.
So for now, Reinhardt isn’t focusing much on the NHL draft.
But perhaps, come next June, he’ll be a little more prepared if a new team comes calling his name.