Two graduates of the Airdrie Bantam AAA Xtreme have reached the next step in their careers after their names were called during the 2020 Western Hockey League (WHL) Bantam Draft.
The Medicine Hat Tigers selected second-year goaltender Zachary Zahara as the 171st pick April 22, while the Kelowna Rockets picked centre Ethan Neutens as the 180th pick.
"I was beyond happy," said Neutens, a 14-year-old centre from Cochrane. "I was super surprised and jumping out of my seat, basically.
"It’s a great team and organization. Kelowna is a great place, too, and I’m looking forward to getting to know people there and hopefully playing there."
If all goes well, the two players will join their respective WHL teams in the fall of 2021, after playing one year of U17 hockey.
Neutens, who recorded eight goals and 15 assists in 31 regular-season games for the Xtreme last season, said his range of passing is one attribute that likely attracted the Rockets.
"I feel when they were scouting, what really stood out about me was my playmaking ability, my skating and being able to see things that most people wouldn’t be able to see when making plays," he said.
Xtreme head coach Tyson Soloski agreed, saying Neutens is a well-rounded player who can be successful in both the offensive and defensive zones.
"[Neutens] plays a really good 200-foot game," he said. "He continued to develop throughout the year and just got better every game. He has a tremendous leadership ability and works extremely hard."
Zahara, meanwhile, enjoyed a solid season between the pipes for the Xtreme. In his second year with the AAA squad, Zahara recorded a .908 save percentage and a goals-against average of 3.36 per game.
Soloski credited Zahara’s work ethic in helping him get noticed by the Medicine Hat scouts.
"He shows up to practices and games and works as hard as he can, no matter what," he said. "You can see that when you watch him play. Lots of different teams noticed that, so I think it’s his biggest attribute, along with his calm demeanour.
"It’s nice having a calm goalie, no matter what happens. If he gets scored on, if we’re down or up, he just stays even keel."
Zahara would be the third Airdrie hockey product to join the Tigers in the last three years, following in the footsteps of Caleb Willms and Damon Agyeman, who joined the organization last year.
"It will make me feel more comfortable and at home, with some people I recognize and know," Zahara said. "It’s awesome that I’m a part of [the Tigers] now. They’re an awesome, first-class organization with awesome people."
While getting drafted is positive, Soloski said the message he would relay to the two players is to not let the accomplishment go to their heads, as being selected in the bantam draft is just the first step towards playing in the major junior league affectionately known as "the Dub."
"It’s still a long ways away," he said. "If they’re willing to put in the work, there’s no doubt in my mind they can both play in the Western league. It’s just about putting their heads down and continuing to work hard, no matter where they’re playing.
"I think they both have that understanding – it’s what allowed them to get picked and I think they’ll continue to be like that."