By: Tyler Ballesteros-Willard

When it comes to describing first experiences, I truly had a blast covering my first ever Kubota Top Prospects Game. At first, I had no idea what to expect from this event, but soon found out the invaluable time I would have amongst the hockey worlds elite. Throughout this article, I will give you a glimpse into my experience networking and being around the top prospects.

On the 1st day of the event, because of my excitement and passion for the game of hockey, I arrived at Avenir Center at 8:25 in the morning where I connected with CHL media rep Christopher Seguin who takes care of setting up the interviews. Time passes by and while I was organizing my notes and reports on players I haven’t watched yet, from up in the press box, I recognized familiar faces that he has met at TD Place in Ottawa. I went down, and while Team Red starts to get on the ice for their testing and practice, and the two people he recognized were Director of Player Personnel Martin Lapointe and Director of Amateur Scouting Nick Bobrov of the Montreal Canadiens. Bobrov, I spoke less to but to Mr. Lapointe, he was considered quite surprised that I decided to make the far commute from Ottawa. Speaking about hockey and life in general, Martin and I had quite the conversation of approximately 20 minutes before the evaluating began in the on-ice testing.

After the on-ice testing and practice was completed for Team Red, interviews started to come along. The true of this aspect was that I was quite nervous and didn’t know what to expect due to my first-time taking action at a worldwide event. The interviews that I completed for DraftPro for Team Red were Zayne Parekh, Ryerson Leenders, Andrew Basha and Sam Dickinson but the one that he felt most proud of was his interview with Maxim Massé. The reason being is that I truly felt he can show his versatility with connecting with players due to me being bilingual in English and French. Before the interview, I asked Max that if he wanted to do it in French, he can. Max was surprised with my versatility in speaking both languages. After the interview with Zayne Parekh, Zayne funny enough actually remembered me from and spoke to each other for a short period of time asking what he was doing here which both had quite a chuckle with one another. After the Dickinson interview, I had an amazing outside discussion with Sam about the whole event. As receptive as he is, Sam was quite surprised with the network that I had made throughout the few years, as well as being good friends with two of Sam’s teammates from the Hlinka Gretzky Cup (One of them mentioned in a moment).

After Team Red’s interview scrums were complete, I went into the stands from below and was admiring the special structure of Avenir Center. While walking towards the location I wanted to go view Team White’s testing, one player near the glass on the left-hand side of the players bench tried to get his attention. At the corner of my eye is when I started noticing it. I looked, and he realized that my good friend Henry Mews from the Ottawa 67’s was showing his excitement of my arrival. My only response was that I pointed my hand to the ice signifying to him to focus at maximum energy. After an amazing performance in the weaving category for the 67’s quarterback defenseman, interviews came along now for Team White. The interviews that I completed were Liam Greentree, Henry Mews, Tij Iginla, and Berkly Catton. Everything went smoothly as great discussions were spoken between all but most importantly, Henry finally expressed to me on him being surprised that I actually made the commute. Hank and I spoke outside of the media for a good 5-10 minutes just about their excitement of participating at the event in their own particular ways. However, in a joking way, I asked why he was nodding at me while Henry should have focused on the ice and Henry seemed kind of clueless due to his jokester like character at times. Mews’ answer, “I don’t know, what the heck was I supposed to do?” in his laughing state. After the catch up, we planned to meet after the closely competitive game ended.

Day 2 finally comes, still major excitement shown from the young scout as he heads to the arena for 9am. Prospect’s game day is a day that I will never forget due to the connections made and remembrance of those who previously connected with me. The 1st person who comes along that remembered me is Calgary Flames General Manager Craig Conroy. We truly connected for a quite a bit of time to the point it was nearly 2 hours from the whole trip from the Wednesday and the Thursday in the airport. The first connecting was during Team White’s practice for around 15-20 minutes. Another positive was that Mr. Conroy was kind enough to share me his email and reach out to Craig after the trade deadline. As Team White’s practice was completed, it came time for the 2nd round of interviews. The first two I interviewed on Team White were Lukas Fischer as well as the flashy puck handling Beckett Sennecke. Lukas, son of former Detroit Red Wings Jiri, took tremendous pride in his father’s advice he was given. Beckett’s case, he shows tremendous pride and passion in learning from Avalanche 2023 1st round pick Calum Ritchie while playing on his wing through the season.

The following session comes which involves Team Red’s practice, I was truly impressed by the playing style of Brandon Wheat Kings Charlie Elick, as well as the steady two-way game of Oshawa General’s defenseman Ben Danford. When it came to the forwards, my eyes got locked onto one player due to the incredible versatility he thought he seen. That was Everett’s Flying Fin in Julius Miettinen. Luckily enough, those were the three players I got to interview which by every interview, he was amazed of their character in many ways. Julius’ resilience in not quitting during a hard transition from Finland to North America, Ben’s excitement in playing against his two teammates from Oshawa, and Charlie Elick’s poise while facing his Hlinka Gretzky teammates. Once the practice scrums were complete, it was finally time to look forward to the CHL Top Prospects Game.

Moments in between were completing scouting work, schoolwork, as well as myself visualizing in the stands just on my love for the game of hockey. Unique moments were also reconnecting with TSN’s Director of Scouting Craig Button after originally meeting him at the 2023 NHL Draft in Nashville. The minor curveball that was thrown to me was that a relative of mine, Martin Madden Jr of the Anaheim Ducks, was not in Moncton for the event, however, this was no set back at all means. When 4:45 hit, many familiar faces suddenly remembered me quite well. Martin Lapointe and I reconnected for a great period of time. Boston Bruins’ General Manager Don Sweeney was pleasantly surprised after he saw me, and he took a quick 5 minutes to check up on how I was doing. The one that hit me the most at that moment was the hockey player that got me into the game I love most. That was Boston Bruins’ Assistant General Manager Jamie Langenbrunner. In short sum up, Jamie Langenbrunner is a former NHL star for the Dallas Stars, and the New Jersey Devils in which he won a cup with both teams. The Minnesota native actually noticed me way earlier and decided to go greet me without calling his name. What even surprised me most as well was that he was not as serious as I thought he would be. We both spoke about what we were doing in Moncton, who we were looking when it came to players, as well as life in general. Our conversation lasted for around 30 minutes and a bonus as well was that Jamie was kind enough to share me his contact information when it comes to learning from the best of the best. The fun part is that I am having a call with him before the trade deadline.

Moments later, I ran into Toronto Maple Leafs Director of Player Personnel and Scouting Wes Clark in the corridor of Avenir Center. What an unbelievable man he is with his analytical mind. After going high up in the crowd, I noticed a man with short hair wearing similar glasses. As soon as he turned to come up the stairs, I recognized that it was my childhood hockey hero of becoming an NHL general manager. It was Detroit Red Wings Hockey Hall of Famer and General Manager, Steve Yzerman. Without an instance, I couldn’t dare to not meet the wise and patient manager. As soon as I ran down the stairs to where he was sitting, I decided to greet the man who I was waiting to meet for my whole life, yet I seemed unsure of myself. At this moment, it was at this moment where my soul started to really open up as I felt I was the most whole in my life after the painful years I went through. My conversation with Steve lasted for 5-10 minutes but it wasn’t the quantity of time in which it lasted, but it was certainly the quality, as not only Yzerman received my business card, but most importantly, a historic picture was taken which will never be forgotten in my life.

Following to the special meet, Assistant GM and Director of Scouting Kris Draper even recognized me and had a 2–3-minute discussion. Wade Klippenstein came along as well and had a great discussion me by asking me who caught my attention throughout the testing, character and practice as we reconnected from the previous drafts. And then round 2 of Craig Conroy hit which that lasted for nearly 30-35 minutes. Conroy and I showed tremendous interest in the skill/power game of Liam Greentree in the way he releases the puck. At the end of the game, it couldn’t have been scripted any better as I reconnected at the end with Mr. Yzerman for a short minute. When it came to the ending interviews, my best interviews were saved for last as not only he got to connect with OHL star goaltender Carter George as well as reconnecting with his Ottawa connection in Henry Mews.

Bonus story finally comes as I get stuck at the Moncton Airport for 6 hours due my flight being at 8:15. While the late afternoon to late evening hits at 5ish, WHL stars like Tanner Howe, Carson Wetsch and Charlie came along, but the one player who acknowledged me and wished me a safe trip home was Medicine Hat star Andrew Basha as he was flying back to Calgary. While I came back to my seat, ironically, Craig Conroy once again noticed me which I had no idea he was there. Then this is the longest hit as we spoke from 5pm-5:45pm. What we were talking about was about his career in what it was like in playing with Jarome Iginla in the Stanley Cup Finals in 2004. We also discussed projects that I have done in school when it came to rebuilding NHL clubs with the CBA. What was really intriguing however from his end was that I was asked what my thoughts on the Kitchener Rangers are. I gave my honest opinion and what was funny as well was that he loved the game of offensive defenseman in Hunter Brzustewicz. After he left, it kind of all made sense as recently, Hunter was acquired in the major blockbuster trade involving Elias Lindholm from the Flames and Andrei Kuzmenko from the Canucks.  

At the end of the day, what you get in Craig Conroy, is a truly likeable figure in which hockey fans like myself show tremendous aspirations of becoming someone like him one day.

Photos & Video by Tyler Ballesteros-Willard