A year ago, Nico Myatovic had Prince George marked on his calendar as one of his early-season destinations for what he thought was going to be his first chance to strut his stuff playing in front of a hometown crowd for the visiting Seattle Thunderbirds.
It never happened.
COVID flare-ups around the Western Hockey League forced the league to revamp its schedule for the first two months and minimize travel, limiting teams strictly to games against divisional opponents.
For Myatovic, who played for Prince George teams until he turned 16 and was old enough for the WHL, missing that trip home was a disappointment but it certainly didn’t interrupt his progress as a hockey player.
Still classed as a rookie after putting up seven points in eight games the previous season in the U.S. Division pod, the former Cariboo Cougar /North Central Bobcat ended up 10th in T-birds’ scoring with four goals and 24 assists for 28 points. Having played 67 of 68 regular season games, he went on a tear with his team, playing all 25 playoff games all the way to the WHL final.
In the playoffs, the Seattle eliminated the Kelowna Rockets in a five-game opening-round series, then overcame a 3-1 series deficit to defeat Taylor Gauthier and the Portland Winterhawks in a seven-game series. Then in the Western Conference final, the T-birds also went the distance against the Kamloops Blazers, winning the final two games to advance to the championship series against the Edmonton Oil Kings, who dashed their title hopes in a six-game series.
In those 25 games, Myatovic collected eight points and scored three goals, including the overtime winner in Game 4 of the conference final in Kamloops, which tied the series 2-2.
This season, like the rest of his undefeated team, the six-foot-three, 180-pound Myatovic is off to a great start playing the right side on a line with centre Sam Popowich and left winger Gabe Ludwig. Through seven games, Myatovic has four goals and three assists and has helped Seattle climb to the top of the conference standings, a perfect 8-0-0-0.
Picked in the sixth round of the 2019 WHL draft, Myatovic has continued to impress NHL scouts and on Tuesday he was graded a ‘C’ prospect by NHL Central Scouting on its preliminary list of players available for next year’s draft in Nashville. His ‘C’ listing pegs him as a potential fourth-, fifth- or sixth-round draft pick.
“That’s pretty special to see that list with my name on it, it’s pretty cool,” said Myatovic, who turns 18 on Dec. 1. “Our team has been on fire and I think that helps with personal success. We’ve got a deep team this year and we’re playing like it so far, so hopefully we can continue that this weekend.
“That playoff experience last year was huge for not only me but a big portion of our team and we’re using that as fuel this year. It gives us a bit of confidence knowing you have a good core group returning, but at the same time we didn’t win it and that doesn’t sit well with us and we’re going to try and redeem ourselves and play like that every night. I think we’re still one of the youngest teams in the Western League and that’s pretty cool.”
T-birds’ head coach Matt O’Dette is in his sixth season at the helm and Myatovic says all the players have adopted his approach to the game, knowing how successful it was last season.
“We have that top-end talent, but when everyone’s working hard that’s when we’re at our best and everyone’s bought into the system and that added skill and talent just brings us that much further,” said Myatovic.
Myatovic moved from a city of about 80,000 to Seattle, which has a metro population of 4.1 million and he loves big-city life. He’s been to couple Mariner baseball games, watched the NFL Seahawks play Atlanta live and on Tuesday he was in the crowd at Climate Pledge Arena watching the NHL Kraken beat the Buffalo Sabres.
“It’s unbelievable being out here with the guys and on off-days were able to go into the city and do different kinds of things like that,” he said. “A bunch of went to a (University of Washington) football game and that was almost better than the Seahawks game. It was just a different atmosphere with the student section and everyone going nuts, to see that many people for a college football game. That stadium holds around 60,000 and it was close it being sold out.”
The Myatovic clan in Prince George is a large one and the family is well known around town for logging and general construction companies which have deep roots in the community. He knows his parents, Karen and Marco, and 20-year-old brother Markus will be in the stands at CN Centre cheering him on this weekend.
“I’m really looking forward to it, I’m going to have tons of friends and family coming out and I’m just excited to finally play at home,” he said.
He got quite used to that hometown favour playing for the Cariboo Cougars U18 team as a 15-year-old in 2019-20, a year after he led the North Central Bobcats as captain to the provincial Tier 1 bantam championship in a tournament played at Kin 1.
“That group was pretty special and to win it all at home like that, I’ll remember that for the rest of my life,” he said. “It’s one thing to host provincials but to have that feeling going in that we can win this thing and then you pull it off in front of friends and family, that’s pretty special.”
The Cougars (5-5-0-0) have a competitive team this year and are just two points behind B.C. Division-leading Kamloops after defeating off the Blazers on the road last Saturday.
“They just knocked off some top teams, so they’re playing good hockey right now,” said Myatovic. “They’ve got a lot of good young talent and they’re going to be a real tough opponent this weekend and we’ve got to come ready.
“The people up there deserve a good team and I think they’ve got one with the team they have there now. They’re young and they’re on the upswing and they’ll just keep building forward.
“We’ve got them twice in Prince George and then they come right back down here (Tuesday) so three games in row with those guys, it’s going to be a bit of a battle and we’re going to get familiar with them. It’ll be fun.”
Game time Friday is 7 p.m., with a 6 p.m. start slated for Saturday.