Saskatoon is surrounded by rich farmland that produces bountiful crops that feed the nation and put bread on the table for Saskatchewan farmers.
The Paris of the Prairies is also known for producing stud hockey players, the famous of course being Gordie Howe.
The Prince George Cougars have obviously trained their sights on Saskatoon over the past couple years. They’ve used their top picks in the three most recent WHL drafts to select Saskatoon natives and the Cougars they think they’ve uncovered another gem – 15-year-old centre Lee Shurgot.
Shurgot was their ninth-overall pick in Thursday’s Prospects Draft and he’s bringing the Cougar family the ability to fill opposition nets with pucks. In 31 games this past season playing for the U15 Saskatoon Generals of the Saskatchewan Double-A Hockey League he scored 57 times and finished with 100 points.
The six-foot-one, 166-pound Shurgot caught the eye of Brett Jarvis, the Cougars central Saskatchewan scout, and the Cougars staff headed by scouting director Bob Simmonds agreed he was the best player available when they took their turn at the draft table.
“Lee’s offensive upside is just off the charts, his ability to create offence is really unmatched in this draft class,” said Simmonds. “He makes the players around him better when he’s on the ice and I think when you look ahead a year or two he’s going to mesh really well with Riley Heidt and Koehn Ziemmer and Caden Brown and Ryker Singer and that group. It’s really going to be good.”
Shurgot is less than two years younger than Saskatoon native Heidt, the Cougars’ second-overall choice in the 2020 draft, and he played eight games this season for the U18 Saskatoon Blazers with 16-year-old defenceman Tyson Buczowski, another Cougars’ first-rounder who went 15th overall in the draft. Defenceman Bauer Dumanski, the Cougars’ second-round pick in 2020, is from Humboldt, which is close to Saskatoon and Dumanski played for the triple-A Blazers before he joined the Cats’ last season.
Shurgot grew up watching the Saskatoon Blades and he’s always wanted to play in the WHL. The Cougars identified him early in the season as a candidate for their first-round pick.
“It’s definitely an honour to go the Cougars that high, it’s awesome,” said Shurgot. “I had an idea I was going to go to Prince George, just talking to them before, but wasn’t 100 per cent sure. I kind of maybe knew.
“I played with Tyson (Buczowski) before. I was an AP last year for the Blazers and in the shortened COVID season when he was in second-year bantam I was on his team, but we didn’t get a lot of games in, and I played spring hockey with him for a few years. He’s a good solid defenceman and he’s super-fast, one of the fastest players I’ve played with, smart, with a good shot, just a good all-around d-man.”
Shurgot describes himself as a dynamic player with a nose for the net.
“I use my size and my stickhandling ability to create some space and opportunity and I have a good, quick-release shot and I like to score goals,” he said. “Usually, growing up with teams, I’ve always found a way to find the back the net. I have two older brothers that played, not competitive but just for fun, I they definitely influenced me since I was young. I’ve been on the ice since I was two and just fell in love with the game.”
He can’t wait for his first Cougar camp on Labour Day weekend, which will get him used to the faster pace he’ll encounter playing next season for the triple-A Blazers. He knows the Cougars are loaded with talented young players and are considered a WHL team on the rise.
“It’s obviously one of the best leagues in Canada, just super-intense and the teams are very well run, run like pro teams, and they’re all good programs and it will be good development playing against all the best players,” said Shurgot.
“It’s a very bright future and it’s just going to be awesome to be part of that with their players getting older and stronger and I’ve heard (the Cougars) will be a good team right away.”
Saskatoon has four 15U double-A teams, the Generals, Bandits, Stallions and Outlaws. An astounding 17 players from the Saskatoon area who played in that league were picked in Thursday’s draft.
On draft day Thursday the Cougars picked five forwards, four defencemen and one goalie.
“As a scouting group we were very happy with who we were able to draft,” said Simmonds. “Obviously we wanted to add skill, we were looking at players that were going to complement the young skilled forwards that we have and I think we accomplished that.”
Prince George had four picks in the first 61 of the draft order and used their second-round choice, 28th overall, to select centre Jett Lajoie of Winnipeg, who collected 26 goals and 41 points in 25 with the Winnipeg U15 triple-A Browns. The five-foot-11, 152-pound Lajoie moved up to the Winnipeg U-17 triple-A Bruns for the playoffs and helped them win the Winnipeg city championship, collecting six goals and 13 points in six games.
“Jett has skill, he has tenacity, he plays a rambunctious game and he reminds me of a player we had a few years ago, Colby McAuley,” said Simmonds. “He’s easily one of the best players in Manitoba.”
The Cougars had two third-round picks, their own at 50t h which they used to select defenceman Leith Hunter, and Red Deer’s 61st overall choice, which brought them centre Aiden Foster. Hunter casts a long shadow at six-foot-six, 169 pounds and he produced nine goals and 26 assists in 35 games while leading the Vancouver Northwest Hawks to the BC Elite Hockey League U15 playoff title. Foster is the son of former Cougar winger Aaron Foster, who four seasons with the Cats from 2000-2003. Aiden captained the Lloydminster Bobcats and led the 15U team in scoring with 29 goals and 50 points in 29 games.
The other future Cougars on the 2022 draft list were defencemen Max Threinen (fifth round, 94th overall, Yorkton Terriers U15 double-A), Kieran Thibault (seventh round, 138th overall, Thompson Blazers U15 triple-A) and Mitchell DeCoste (seventh round, 145th overall Airdrie Xtreme U15 triple-A). Left wingers Rowan McDonald (seventh round, 150th overall, Spruce Grove PAC Saints U15) and Logan Flint (eighth round, 160th overall, Rink Academy Kelowna 15U) as well as goalie Brady Holtvogt (sixth round, 116th overall, Humboldt Broncos 15U).
The Cougars traded their fourth-round pick, 72nd overall, to Saskatoon for 2002-born forward Noah Boyko. The Fort Saskatchewan, Alta., native had 11 goals and six assists in 27 games with Lethbridge and finished the season with the Blades, scoring five goals and eight assists in 20 games and a goal and an assist in three playoff games.
The 2021 Prospects Draft was delayed by the pandemic until Dec. 9 and over the past year the WHL has also added an annual U.S. Priority Draft which happens now a day before the Prospects Draft. That’s four drafts in the past six months and a lot of time spent watching kids play for the Cougars’ 12-strong scouting staff.
“My hat’s off to our scouting group because the time and effort that went into doing two drafts in the timeframe of one season was quite remarkable,” said Simmonds. “All these guys work (at other jobs) and they’ve got careers and businesses and careers.”