In October of 2019, the first time Darrell “Son” Shaugabay of Warroad, Minn., got a call from a pro hockey team about his son Jayson, it was a thrill.
Five months later, as Jayson was preparing to play in the Minnesota State High School Hockey Tournament, and the family was getting multiple calls from Western Hockey League teams every day, it got to be a bit much.
“The first couple phone calls, it was kind of flattering and exciting that someone liked your kid,” said the elder Shaugabay, who is an assistant coach for Warroad's boys team. “By the state tournament it was four or five calls a day. It was overwhelming. Of the 22 (WHL) teams, 18 reached out to us for phone calls, questionnaires and other things.”
After showing off some eye-popping skills on the ice for the Warriors, first at Hockey Day Minnesota and then at Xcel Energy Center during the state tournament and averaging better than two goals a game as a freshman, it is not surprising that hockey teams are interested in having Jayson wear their sweater someday. On March 25, a few weeks after Jayson and his team had finished fourth in St. Paul, the Winnipeg Ice made him the sixth-overall selection in the WHL’s first U.S. Prospects Draft, sending him a package of team apparel and making offers of money and a fast track to the NHL if he were to sign a contract now.
At the time of the WHL draft, Jayson was just 14 years old.
“It was cool to be picked,” said the soft-spoken Jayson, in a recent phone interview from his home. “They sent me a hat, a t-shirt and some shorts.”
The far-flung WHL has 17 teams in Canada and five in the U.S. (one in Oregon and four in Washington state). They are collectively part of the Canadian Hockey League, which has 60 major junior teams split between the WHL, the Ontario Hockey League (which has three American teams) and the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
Since CHL players get paid a stipend -- usually about $400 a month -- and can play in the league after signing an NHL contract, major juniors are considered professional hockey by the NCAA, and once signing with a CHL team, your college eligibility is gone.
Major junior teams have actually been drafting 14-year-olds, and a few American kids, for years as a part of their annual draft for bantam-age players, but most of those picked were Canadian. This spring was the first time the WHL held a two-round draft specifically for American kids living west of the Mississippi River. The first overall pick, by the Red Deer (Alberta) Rebels, was forward Gracyn Sawchyn from Minneapolis. Two picks after Winnipeg plucked Shaugabay, the Seattle Thunderbirds drafted forward Landon Dauner from Fargo. In all, the 44 picks in the WHL draft of American prospects included a dozen Minnesotans and three North Dakotans, with players from Texas, Arizona and California dominating the rest of the spots.
Minnesota's claim as the State of Hockey is more than just a clever slogan. The state continues to produce a wealth of young hockey talent each year, with 18% of the American players in Division I men’s college hockey last season hailing from the state. The WHL is looking to attract more of that talent to western Canada, their new draft is a way to bring that league to the attention of additional players in this region.
“Minnesota is probably the one state that has the least amount of knowledge about our league. For me, that’s something we need to address going forward,” said Zach Hodder, the director of player development for the Calgary-based WHL, and a former major junior player himself. “We just want players to know what’s available to them, and make sure they have the right information. Because there is a lot of misinformation out there.”
Due to NCAA rules, signing a major junior contract is a one-way street. Once a player chooses the CHL route, there is very little chance that they can ever regain college eligibility. Former Minnesota Gophers goalie Mat Robson was one of very, very few players who did so. He signed an OHL contract as a teenager, but was injured before playing in a major junior game, and after a lengthy appeal process was able to play college hockey.
For that reason, major junior is portrayed by many as a much more risky option, especially by those recruiting players to college hockey programs, which provide an education as well as a potential path to the NHL. In theory, a player could get injured at 18 while playing major junior hockey and be left with no education and no shot of a pro hockey career.
The major junior leagues point out that they offer an education funding package as well, and will pay for one year of college tuition for every year that a player spends in junior hockey. Although there are strict time limits placed on when a player must use that scholarship money, and the scholarship dollars go away if a player signs a higher-level pro hockey contract.
David Brumm, a forward from Maple Grove, Minn., played high school hockey through his sophomore year, then went to a AAA team in Nebraska. In what would have been his senior year of high school, Brumm signed with the Vancouver Giants of the WHL and played parts of two seasons there.
From a hockey standpoint, Brumm’s career fizzled, and he was done playing competitively before he turned 20. But today he is at the University of Minnesota, pursuing a degree from the renowned Carlson School of Management, and the WHL is paying for part of it.
“It’s been a really good deal for me. Growing up and playing hockey, your main goal is you want to get your college paid for,” Brumm said. “You hear a lot of horror stories from the Western Hockey League and some other kids who go CHL, but I played two years there and that results in two years of tuition being paid.”
The Shaugabay family is not anywhere near that point yet.
They said the Ice -- coached by former University of North Dakota star James Patrick -- have not presented any kind of “hard sell.” They have offered Jayson a contract and have pitched the education package. They invited him to their prospect camp which will be held in the late summer. They sent some team apparel, which (to retain NCAA eligibility) the family will either pay for or donate to charity. The family has gotten to know a bit about major junior hockey and sees the WHL as "Plan B" for a talented Minnesota kid still months away from his sophomore year of high school.
“Jayson is very clear and we have told the team that the NCAA is our first choice,” Son Shaugabay said. “I’m smart enough to know that we don’t know what the future holds and if college will work out. We don’t know anything. So we told the team that we would come to their camp, check out the community, the team and the organization, and put that in our back pocket in case we need it.”
If the WHL’s first U.S. Prospect Draft was intended to educate more Minnesota kids on the ways of major junior hockey, in at least one case it seems to have worked.
Next: In part two of our three-part series, a look at a few of the small handful of Minnesotans who have chosen the major junior route, and the challenges and opportunities they have found in the Western Hockey League.