The Prince George Cougars bagged a lanky Bison in their European talent hunt and he made his first appearance at CN Centre over the weekend skating for Team Chara at the Cats' training camp.
Bartek Bison grew up in Amsterdam, Holland, a country where hockey players are a rare breed. The 17-year-old winger is hoping he can make enough inroads with the Cougars to get drafted into the NHL, just like his fellow countryman, Daniel Sprong.
The six-foot-three, 187-pound Bison knew the learning curve would be steep when he started skating with the Cougars in training camp scrimmages Saturday.
"It's a way different game than what I'm used to but I got used to the guys and the game and third and fourth period and it went better, it's fun," said Bison. "I'm more like a grinder. I like to work my way out of the corners and hit a lot. I think (the) Cougars noticed me as a hard worker who goes in the corners and works his butt off."
The Cougars used their 20th overall pick in the CHL import draft to select Bison. He played as a 16-year-old last season in the German Development League for the Jungadler Mannheim under-19 team and had four goals and four assists in 29 games. He also played for The Netherlands in the Under-20 2A World Championship. Bison was also drafted into the USHL by the Madison Capitals, but once the Cougars selected him it was an easy decision.
"For three years I've wanted to play the WHL because it's kind of my style and now I'm over here I'm so pumped and happy to be here," said Bison. "I look up to (Sprong). I played one year with him and I know him. I wanted to be the first guy from Holland to go to the NHL but being the second guy would be good too. I'm very proud to be here as a Dutch guy, to show the guys in Holland you don't have to be stuck in Europe."
Sprong, a forward for Charlottetown of the QMJHL, became the first Dutch-born player picked in the NHL draft when the Pittsburgh Penguins took him this year in the second round, 46th overall. He played most of his minor hockey in Quebec. Ed Kea, who played in the '70s and '80s for Atlanta and St. Louis, is the only Dutch-born player to reach the NHL, but never played hockey in Holland, having moved at age 4 to Ontario.
"We don't have a lot of minor hockey teams - just 10 teams and we played against each each twice and the top two teams go to the final and that's it," said Bison. "Hockey is known in Holland but it's like a hobby."
Bison is fluent in English and will finish high school at Prince George secondary school. He likes the city so far and figures he'll have no trouble adjusting to living in Canada.
"I love it over here, it's so different from Europe with so much more space," he said. "The guys on the team are more open and everyone's nice to you. In Europe you just get a dumb look, they don't go over to you and give you a hand."
Bison played on right wing for Team Hamhuis on a line with Jansen Harkins and Jared Bethune and showed he can handle the pace of trying to keep up with two of the team's top forwards. He skates well, doesn't get caught out of position and was able to generate some offence.
"I'm very excited about him, he has good hands and has a nose for the net and he didn't back down, which for a European player is great," said Cougars general manager Todd Harkins. "He's a big-bodied player and he plays a North American style. He's only 17 and we hope by Christmas time he's hitting his stride and producing and gets on the NHL radar."
Until training camp began on the weekend, none of the Cougars coaches, scouts or owners had seen Bison skate, and the same can be said about their their second pick in the import draft, Slovenian-born defenceman Luka Zorko.
The six-foot-five, 207-pound Zorko, 18, was born in Novo Mesto, Slovenia and moved to Moscow, Russia when he was five. Drafted into the KHL by Moscow Spartak in the fourth round last year, he collected four goals and eight points in 49 games for Atlanty Mytishchi of the Russian under-21 league, playing against opponents as much as four years older. Zorko also played five games for the Slovenia national team at the World Junior Division 1 A Championship in Italy and helped Slovenia win silver at the U-18 1B world championship.
Zorko was considering his options in the KHL when the Cougars chose him 80th overall in the June 30 draft. He was nervous at the start of camp but the jitters went away early in his first scrimmage Saturday.
"That was so fun, it was a good game and I like playing that kind of aggressive hockey, all attack and all defence, it's for me," said Zorko, who also has no trouble communicating in English with his new teammates. "I want to go up to the next level and upgrade my skills and we have a really good organization here with good coaches and good teammates. I like it here in Prince George, it's similar to my birthplace in Slovenia, it's all green."
Harkins got his first look at Zorko Saturday and figures he'll need to work at getting more efficient on his blades, but was impressed when he banked a puck off the back of the net to set up a goal for veteran Hadyn Hopkins in Saturday's scrimmage
"He's very smart and good with his stick and he has some skill - his skating is a little bit weak for me right now," said Harkins. "But we'll have our power skating coach, Karen Koss, working with him and with lots of ice time he'll be fine. He just looks a bit funny when he skates because he's six-foot five and when you're that big, sometimes you struggle to get around the ice, but I'm sure that's something we can correct."
The Cougars will practice this week while preparing for their first pre-season games Friday in Kamloops and Saturday in Kelowna.