A lifelong dream came true for Airdrie hockey product Jake Neighbours.
On Oct. 6, the 18-year-old hockey player was selected in the first round of the 2020 NHL Draft. The St. Louis Blues selected the five-foot-11, 200-pound Edmonton Oil Kings left wing as the 26th pick.
"There's still a lot of shock in me and a lot of emotions," he said. "I don't think it's really sunk in – the whole experience – and I can't seem to stop thinking about it."
Neighbours said he’s excited to join the Blues, who won the Stanley Cup in 2019.
"They have a really good organization and it seems like they have a great staff," he said. "I can't wait to meet them in person and get to know them. It's the same with the players. They're outstanding hockey players and I'm sure they're great guys as well, so I'm looking forward to getting out there."
Neighbours’ selection as the 26th pick was fitting, as he was ranked 26th among North American skaters by the NHL’s Central Scouting report. The Elite Prospects’ 2020 NHL Guide highlighted the forward's assisting prowess as one of his strengths.
“He boasts playmaking ability, especially off the boards, has a decent motor with solid defensive fundamentals and is sturdier than a refrigerator,” the guide stated. “Opposition defenders step up on him, then crumble to the ice. He's a brick wall – and a brick wall who can set-up teammates with some pace and deception.”
Originally from Airdrie, Neighbours suited up for the U15 AAA Xtreme in the 2015-16 season, recording 22 goals and 40 points in 35 games. Following that season, he moved to Kelowna, B.C. to play for the Pursuit of Excellence (POE) in the Canadian Sport School Hockey League. While playing with POE, Neighbours was selected as the fourth overall pick by the Oil Kings in the 2017 Western Hockey League (WHL) Bantam Draft.
After two years in the Okanagan, he finished his minor career back in his home province with the Calgary Buffaloes before heading north up Highway 2 to kickstart his junior career with the Oil Kings.
Neighbours has shone since moving to Alberta’s capital two years ago. He quickly broke into the Oil Kings’ lineup in his first season in the WHL, managing 24 points in 47 regular-season outings in the 2018-19 campaign. His strong play in his 16-year-old season resulted in two WHL Rookie of the Month awards.
His fine form continued in the playoffs, with Neighbours recording four goals and 12 points in 16 games as Edmonton went on a deep post-season run. Neighbours was Edmonton’s only rookie to score during the playoffs.
The former Xtreme player’s stock improved in his second junior season. As a 17-year-old, Neighbours averaged more than one point per game for the Oil Kings in 2019-20, tallying 23 goals and 70 points in 64 outings before the WHL season was brought to a premature halt due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Considering he's only recently turned 18, Neighbours said he anticipates spending the whole of this season with the Oil Kings.
"Obviously, if St. Louis hosts a camp, I'd love to attend that – to see how I do there and how long I stick around," he said.
Neighbours has also represented his country on the ice. In 2018, he donned the “C” on his sweater as captain for Team Canada White at the 2018 World U17 Hockey Challenge Cup. The following summer, he played five games for Canada’s U18 team at the 2019 Hlinka-Gretzky Cup.
He was not the only NHL draftee with ties to Airdrie this year. Cochrane's Tyrel Bauer and Irricana's Cole Reinhardt, who each played for the Xtreme, the Airdrie-Cochrane Avalanche and CFR Chemical Bisons during their minor careers, were selected in the sixth round by the Winnipeg Jets and Ottawa Senators, respectively. Bauer is currently a member of the Seattle Thunderbirds in the WHL, while Reinhardt suits up for the Brandon Wheat Kings.
With multiple local players being drafted this year, Neighbours said it's a testament to the strength of Airdrie's minor hockey programs.
"I think there's a ton of pride in that," he said. "I know we three are very proud of where we come from and where we played growing up. We're very happy to be connected to Airdrie and now move onto the next step."